Hillary Clinton’s real Trans-Pacific Partnership views shrouded by self-interest


Hillary Clinton was arguably the worst Secretary of State in many years.
Hillary Clinton was arguably the worst Secretary of State in many years.

On Wednesday, Democratic presidential candidate and former secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke sharply with President Obama over the issue of the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP). In an interview with PBS’ News Hour, Clinton said she was not in favor of what (she has) learned about it,” listing specific objections to weak protections against currency manipulation and too many benefits for pharmaceutical companies. She said that any such deal should create American jobs, raise wages and advance national security. Clinton said she felt the TPP failed to meet “the high bar” that she set, though she admitted she was still “trying to learn as much as (she could) about the agreement.”

This is a very different take from when she was secretary of State. In Singapore on Nov. 17, 2012, in a speech headlined, “Delivering on the Promise of Economic Statecraft,” Clinton praised the “far-reaching new trade agreement” that sought to “lower barriers, raise standards and drive long-term growth across the region.” It would “cover 40% of the world’s total trade and establish strong protections for workers and the environment.” She promised that “better jobs with higher wages and safer working conditions, including for women, migrant workers and others too often in the past excluded from the formal economy will help build Asia’s middle class and rebalance the global economy.”

Two days earlier in Australia, she said the TPP “sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”

Clinton said favorable things about the TPP at least 45 times in speeches and other public remarks.

Of course, this was just aspirational rhetoric for a deal that was still being hashed out. While 15 of 19 formal rounds of TPP negotiations took place on her watch, it is possible that in the latter rounds, or in the subsequent series of high-level meetings between negotiators and ministers, the agreement changed radically in ways she had no knowledge of.

That also assumes she was highly engaged in the TPP process to begin with. She did not mention it in her farewell address to State Department employees,  nor did it come up during her joint valedictory 60 Minutes interview with President Obama in January 2013. Matters pertaining to the TPP do not stand out in the Clinton emails that have been released by the State Department. Maybe one reason Clinton is trying to learn as much as she can about the deal is that she didn’t know much about the details to begin with and since she left government, the details have continued to be under wraps.

In assessing the degree of Clinton’s flip-flop on the issue, we are faced with an opaque trade agreement that the White House has not been forthcoming about, against the word of a highly secretive former secretary of State with no obvious paper trail on the issue beyond some platitudes in speeches. Who can say what the truth is? Maybe she signed off on the provisions of the deal she now vigorously objects to. Maybe the TPP changed significantly from what she approved in the two years after January 2013. Maybe she was sidelined during the entire process and never had any influence. As usual with Hillary Clinton, we have no way of separating fact from fiction.

James S. Robbins is a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors and is the author of The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero.

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