The Scourge of Secrecy: Evidence from the TPP Environment Chapter

Gabriel J. Michael / gmichael at gwu dot edu

This post is licensed CC-BY SA 3.0, and may be shared and reposted with attribution. Please include a link back to this page, which will contain the most up-to-date version.

Today, Wikileaks released the third leak in its series on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Today’s documents consist of a draft of the environment chapter and the chair’s report on the status of this chapter as of November 2013. Unlike earlier leaks, this one immediately received attention in the mainstream press, perhaps because of the recent introduction of Fast Track legislation in Congress.

The chapter draft does not contain country positions, but the chair’s report does. This is enough to construct a network graph as I previously did with the leaked intellectual property chapter. The results visually confirm that the U.S. position in the environment chapter is quite far from nearly every other party:

tpp_environment_net

As the New York Times put it, “It appears to be much tougher to negotiate environmental provisions in a 12-nation agreement.”

There’s a great deal of similarity between this network graph and and the multidimensional scaling graph I created for the intellectual property chapter:

tpp_ipIn both cases, the U.S. is a significant outlier compared to the rest of the negotiating parties, and Australia comes closest to the U.S. position, while everyone else clusters together. These graphs reveal that the U.S. likely faces similar negotiating dynamics on both the environment and intellectual property: the U.S. is on one side, and nearly everyone else is on the other side.

Despite facing similar opposition in both chapters, the U.S. has responded differently. In the intellectual property chapter, it has exerted “great pressure” to get other TPP parties to move to the U.S. position, and in most cases U.S. preferences are reflected in the draft text. Meanwhile, in the environment chapter, the U.S. has failed to have its preference for legally binding environmental provisions inserted into the current text.

Given that the U.S. faces similar opposition in both chapters, why has it succeeded in getting its preferences reflected in the intellectual property chapter, but not the environment chapter?

Simply put, it is a matter of priorities. Given a limited amount of bargaining leverage to be expended, the U.S. has chosen to use more in the intellectual property chapter and less in the environment chapter. Were its priorities different, the U.S. could probably have achieved its aims in the environment chapter.

The Times piece quotes an industry lobbyist comparing slow progress on environmental issues to the “centuries” it took to achieve higher labor standards. But if that’s the case, how is it that obtaining strong intellectual property standards has only taken 20 years, rather than centuries? It’s a matter of priorities.

And this is why the secrecy surrounding the TPP negotiations is so problematic. Without draft texts being released as negotiations progress, the public has no way of knowing where the U.S. is expending its bargaining leverage. Negotiating priorities are politically determined. Interest groups with access to the text will be able to lobby the government more effectively than those without access.

When the government chooses who has access to the text, or requires signing NDAs or otherwise limits public discourse by hiding essential information, it limits what issues can become political priorities.

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About Gabriel

Ph.D. in political science. Postdoc and resident fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project. Tech geek. Mechanically inclined. I study the politics of intellectual property.
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