I do not often side with Republicans against Democrats. Nor has President Barack Obama been known for his working relationship with congressional Republicans. Yet on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which died in the House only to be resurrected recently by the Senate — I find myself with the president and the GOP, and opposed to my traditional allies on the left-leaning side of the Democratic Party.
Why, beyond the lingering power of unions to influence Democratic representatives, these strange alliances?
The Democratic votes against the far-reaching Pacific trade pact expressed more than a disagreement over the terms of the deal, which remains neither complete nor public. The debate made clear that many people, including many Democrats, now think the biggest threat facing the United States comes from large corporations rather than other nations. That judgment is wrong — perhaps dangerously wrong.
In the half-century following World War II, only the radical left believed that advanced capitalism had produced a new threat to individual well-being in the form of the transnational corporation. The view that politics was ultimately a function of economics and that the economics of class conflict took the form of corporate power against the worker did have a history going back to Karl Marx.
But in the context of the Cold War on the one hand and the success of the Great Society programs on the other, there remained a strong belief that democratic politics could shape the policies of the nation-state independently of the economic interests of the wealthy. The success of the postwar transformation of Europe added to this confidence. Most people still believed that democratic government acted for the benefit of all and that the state was indispensable for national security.
Today the threats posed by corporations increasingly shape everyday understandings. Many people rightly worry that the transnational corporation is not subject to democratic political control but, on the contrary, controls our politics. They believe that government policies support corporate profits over individual economic success.
Simultaneously, they do not feel threatened by the politics of other states. Russian President Vladimir Putin may have his eye on eastern Ukraine, but that is a long way from California. When most of the goods we purchase say “Made in China,” it’s hard to perceive a geopolitical threat in that country’s dredging work on atolls in the South China Sea. Indeed, the focus on trade agreements helps to support the view that foreign policy has become a matter of economic policy.
The rise of corporate power is indeed cause for worry. That worry extends to the policies of the Republican Party, which is so often an instrument of those corporations.
Why then do I support the president on the Trans-Pacific Partnership? For two reasons. One concerns the nature of the threats we face, and the other concerns the potential of America’s domestic politics to realize progressive ends.
We do not have more to worry about from transnational corporations than from other nations. The world is not yet done with the politics of nation-states. Indeed, the world is becoming more dangerous. We have exhausted the post-Cold War peace bonus. One need only look to the disasters in the Middle East, the fear along the western border of Russia and the changing political alliances of Southeast Asia. These are conflicts driven by resource scarcity, religious differences, ethnic division and sheer political power. They are not conflicts driven by corporate interests. With the world in a refugee crisis, rising tensions in the Pacific, real conflict in Eastern Europe and utter chaos in the Middle East, it is wrong not to take the threat of state power very seriously.
Although corporate power is undeniably a threat to our collective democratic practices and to our individual welfare, too often this threat is countered by a misplaced faith in our own democratic politics. The alternative to the Pacific trade pact is not a vigorous, progressive Congress pursuing greater economic equality, global climate initiatives, and a foreign policy of international development and human rights. Our politics have been in gridlock for more than a decade. The best Democrats can hope for is continued gridlock. If that fails, the GOP, the party of corporate power, will be setting our national course. In short, the alternative to multilateral action and to the TPP is likely to be even friendlier to corporate interests.
Of course, the agenda of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has not been set by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. One might wish it otherwise, but that wing has been a minority in American politics for a very long time. Because of the recent, domestic political attention focused on corporate malfeasance, economic inequality and the influence of money in Washington, Democrats found themselves with the power to erect a roadblock on the way to fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But as the recent Senate action shows, Democrats don’t have the power to actually achieve their domestic political goals, let alone their foreign policy agenda.
In the end, I would rather take my chances with the international institutions that the TPP would establish than rely on the small-d democratic integrity of our own politics when so much is at risk in American foreign policy. It would have been a substantial mistake to withdraw from political leadership at this moment of rising international tensions. Without the trade partnership, Washington does not have all that much to offer nations that find themselves increasingly within the sphere of influence of rising powers.
The world remains a dangerous place. Foreign policy still matters. Indeed, it matters more than an empty promise of a progressive domestic political agenda.
Paul W. Kahn is a professor of law and the humanities at Yale Law School. His latest book is “Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation.”