Shadow Government

Clinton’s TPP Paradox: Why Is the Trade Pact Worse than the Iran Deal?

The democratic presidential contender is using the same logic to oppose the the trade deal that she excoriated in the critics of the nuclear agreement.


Twice this year, President Barack Obama’s diplomatic efforts have put Hillary Clinton in a political pickle.

The most recent one has been the announcement of a provisional deal in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations — a trade deal proposed by President George W. Bush that President Obama continued to pursue as a centerpiece of the so-called Asia Pivot strategy. Clinton recently announced that she was not supporting the deal, at least not yet, because it fell so far short of what she had hoped it would achieve.

Clinton’s opposition to the TPP deal will be controversial because it represents a stunning flip-flop that undermines her case for the presidency. Her case, up until now, has rested on bold claims of being an effective secretary of state. However, as Carly Fiorina, among many others, observed, Clinton and her supporters are repeatedly flummoxed when challenged to name an actual stand-out Clinton achievement from her tenure as Secretary. Politico found 20 Democrats willing to respond to the challenge, and their responses read like collective damning with faint praise. Most of the items listed were either very small policies compared to the range of high-stakes issues she faced or vastly exaggerated claims in dramas where other actors clearly had the lead role.

When I posed this question to Jake Sullivan, her top foreign policy advisor, at a public forum at Duke, he gave a more plausible response: Clinton’s role in advancing the Asia Pivot strategy. Set aside how novel the Asia Pivot actually was — the major attractive elements of it were best understood as a continuation of the Asia strategy Obama inherited from Bush — it was fair to credit Clinton and her senior staff with giving heightened personal attention to Asia, and it is undeniable that Clinton believed this was a legacy policy of her tenure. However, and here is the kicker, without the TPP the Asia Pivot is a failed strategy — elaborate rhetoric not backed up by adequate resources. That is what Clinton’s own expert advisors believe and, one suspects, what Clinton herself believes in her heart of hearts. Yet to support this deal would be to inflame her left flank, the very group that is fueling Senator Bernie Sanders’ astonishing rise in the polls. So she has come out against her own legacy. To paraphrase Henry IV, Clinton has decided that the White House is worth a heresy.

To manage the cognitive dissonance, Clinton evidently is opting for the I was for a better deal than this and so I will push to renegotiate a better deal approach, which brings us to the other diplomatic pickle that President Obama saddled Clinton with: the Iran deal. For Clinton’s position on the TPP is eerily similar to the Republican position on the Iran deal, a position she (and Obama) have roundly denounced as irresponsible. Republicans (and some Democrats) of many different stripes have emphasized that they supported negotiations with Iran to end the nuclear program — the economic-pressure-to-induce-negotiations strategy that Obama pursued was, after all, another Bush strategy that Obama decided to continue, albeit initially in a more conciliatory fashion. What Republican and Democratic critics opposed was not a deal but this deal. And what they called for was going back to the table to get a better deal.

I suspect that Clinton’s own advisors recognized the deficiencies in the Iran deal and I suspect they probably believe that they, backed by a more resolute president, might have been able to negotiate better terms. That is how I interpret their otherwise odd formulation, posed by Anne Marie Slaugher in USA Today this summer, of “woulda, coulda, shoulda” in dismissing criticisms of the deficient negotiating techniques pursued by Obama. In the end, the strongest counterargument from Obama and Clinton was not to deny the many deficiencies in the Iran deal, but to claim that trying to go back for a better deal now was simply impossible. Doing so would antagonize the allies on which such a deal would depend and would leave the United States in the worst of all possible worlds: no deal with Iran and no allies willing to help the United States confront Iran.

Why don’t the arguments she used to defend the weak Iran deal apply to TPP? How can she believe that the United States, having reached this TPP agreement, can tear it up and go back to the table to start over? And what do her own Asia experts say about the plausibility of such an approach? I am looking forward to seeing how Clinton squares the circle of the obvious contradiction between her TPP position and her Iran position.

Clinton’s challenge is enormous. She must make the case that her tenure as secretary of state produced tangible benefits that warrant her receiving a promotion. She must distance herself from the global turmoil that has resulted from the decisions she and President Obama made during that tenure. And she must pacify a radical left base that seems to have concluded that the problem with the Obama-Clinton legacy is that it is not left enough. Doing all of that simultaneously will force her into policy gymnastics of the sort we are witnessing now on the TPP.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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