In Tuesday’s New York Times, law professor Margot Kaminski laid out a compelling case for increased transparency in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. On Wednesday, John Murphy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered a fairly convincing response in defense of confidentiality. The problem is that—as is common in trade policy “debates”—they’re not talking about the same thing. That’s frustrating to me because I think they’re both right.
Kaminski makes the point that the U.S. Trade Representative has been overbroad in what it deems classified material, that the current approach improperly privileges business lobbying over public interest groups, and that as negotiations cover more non-trade issues negotiators need more exposure and guidance from different people.
Murphy responds by noting that trade agreements are successfully increasing U.S. exports, that confidentiality in negotiations is both appropriate and helpful in achieving this outcome, and that systems are in place to ensure that all interested parties have input.
Murphy’s concern is that “public disclosure of confidential negotiating texts would mean a weaker hand for U.S. officials at the negotiating table.” For Kaminski, “it’s a question of whose input we’re getting on decisions that reach far beyond trade — into questions on the price of generic drugs or whether websites will have to monitor users online.”
Murphy is right about the value of confidentiality. Trade negotiations are negotiations, which means the final agreement is the result of some necessary compromise. Compromise is politically difficult, and negotiators need to know that they’ll be evaluated on the final product regardless of their initial positions. In any event, we don’t know what’s in the agreement until it’s completed, and there will indeed be time after the negotiations conclude to debate the package. Murphy’s also justified in being generally defensive about secrecy complaints, which often simply mask general antipathy toward trade liberalization.