Improving International Regulatory Cooperation in an Age of Trade Skepticism



Reeve T. Bull | Brookings

In the run-up to the 2016 election, an interesting shift in the political narrative took place. International trade, which had not been much of an issue for decades and had largely been embraced by both parties, suddenly become a major topic. Two of the leading presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, made opposition to new trade agreements a central part of their campaign platforms.

The Obama administration had followed in the steps of past Republican and Democratic administrations by embracing free trade. At the time of the 2016 election, the administration was simultaneously negotiating two of the largest trade agreements in history, one among a dozen Pacific Rim economies (the Trans-Pacific Partnership or “TPP”) and another among the U.S. and EU (the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or “TTIP”).

When one of the trade skeptics (Donald Trump) ultimately won, he immediately pulled the plug on the TPP and put the TTIP negotiations on indefinite hold. His successor, Joe Biden, has done nothing to revive either agreement and, in many respects, has embraced the free trade skepticism of his predecessor.

This bipartisan surge in anti-trade sentiment, though fueled by the largely inaccurate notion that free trade kills jobs, seems unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. That the TPP and TTIP would fall victim to anti-trade backlash is both unfortunate and largely unjustified because, like many modern free trade agreements, their chief focus was largely on removing unnecessary trade barriers by promoting the alignment of regulations in participant countries rather than reducing tariffs. Regulatory alignment streamlines regulatory compliance by eliminating the need to adhere to a patchwork of different national regulatory approaches. An economic populist who argues for high tariffs to save American manufacturing jobs seems less likely to argue for maintaining divergent U.S. regulations, which is a highly inefficient approach to staving off foreign competition.

Nevertheless, these recent setbacks may yet create new opportunities for advocates of international regulatory cooperation. Achieving regulatory alignment through a trade agreement is the most ambitious and also likely the most challenging possible approach. There are, however, a number of far less controversial or burdensome approaches regulators might take to promote regulatory learning and, ultimately, regulatory alignment. This report explores what those options are and how they might help advocates of regulatory cooperation chart a more sustainable path forward.

Improving International Regulatory Cooperation in an Age of Trade Skepticism

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