International Trade

5 Ways the U.S. Can Increase Trust, Responsiveness, and Transparency in Trade Negotiations

Continuing months of back and forth over the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Senate recently passed Trade Promotion Authority (otherwise known as Fast-Track). The trade package, possibly one of President Obama’s biggest legislative moves, has been called at best a path to job creation and U.S.-led economic governance, and at worst part of a corporatist agenda. According to IIEP Professor Susan Aaronson, trade agreements like TPP and TTIP actually hold exceptional potential to address human rights issues and improve public welfare. However, adding fuel to the fire of the opposition, very few have even seen a glimpse of the agreement – leading experts like Aaronson to consider ways the process might be more transparent and allow for wider input.

While trade negotiations historically are done in secret to ensure the possibility of states putting forward their best proposals, the extraordinary secrecy around the Trans Pacific Partnership has led many to question the integrity of any potential outcome. Selected parties from businesses and public interest groups and members of Congress are the only ones allowed access to the proposed agreement, leading to many in the past months calling for greater openness. Speaking with the Washington Post on the catch-22 of secrecy in trade deals, Professor Susan Aaronson shared her insight into a big question: “Is secrecy worth the price?

“If they were to use game theoretic models to talk about it, there’s no evidence that you lose negotiating clout if you’re transparent,” Aaronson said to the Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis.

In the article, Professor Aaronson went on to explain that the success of trade negotiations is unlikely to occur without public support, granting members of Congress the mandate to vote in favor. This is especially true in the current age of online awareness which allows interest groups, activists, and other individuals to rally support for and against potential legislation like trade agreements. As she examined in a paper looking at the possibilities for human rights provisions in trade agreements,  a lack of public support due to lack of information can detract from the very real potential of negotiations to accomplish good that can help a wide array of marginalized groups.

Of the secrecy, Aaronson explained to the Post that “the more information you put out, you empower people with the facts, but you also disabuse them of the demagoguery related to the facts.”

The power of information was made clear by the public response to documents released by WikiLeaks which sparked outrage amongst different stakeholder groups. It also lead other groups to question if the issues they care about were being negotiated in the same manner. However, trade agreements are evolving documents – and it can be argued that consistent transparency could quell some of the demagoguery that arises when negotiations occur behind closed – and guarded – doors.

Speaking with NPR Marketplace’s Morning Report on June 19th, Aaronson discussed the supposed positives and negatives of secrecy in negotiations.

Those that think that transparency is negative argue that “if the parties are transparent, then everybody knows very early on the most flexibility that you have in the negotiation,” Aaronson said. They would say that transparency would place the negotiator in the least ideal position.

Aaronson argued that this notion regarding transparency is misguided. In fact, transparency could increase trust with the public – an extremely significant variable in a politician’s support of any piece of major legislation. This lack of trust, she proposed, might be contributing to the overwhelming number of Democrats opposing the President. Engagement with the public could also ensure negotiators are able to best represent the needs of various stakeholder groups. She argues that to increase public trust during trade negotiations, the U.S. Trade Representative needs a new framework for approaching and presenting ever-evolving trade negotiations – particularly by improving trade education, widening public discourse, and opening the door for field experts to advise the process.

1. Bolster the advisory process and increase transparency through committees.
  • Develop Advisory Committees for specific chapters of trade agreements in addition to existing committees.
  • Work with a think tank or university to create a Transparency Working Group: a temporary group to give recommendations to the US Trade Representative on what it can do to facilitate greater transparency related to ongoing negotiations. The group should include key Congressional staff and meet once per week for two months to develop a consensus on transparency strategies for the USTR that balance public demands for openness with a clear understanding of the need for secrecy in selected chapters and provisions.
  • The USTR should commit to summarizing recommendations on its website and explain its response to specific recommendations from Advisory Committees and Transparency Working Groups.
  • Engage in a race to the top with the European Union on transparency.
  • While the USTR has not agreed to release its negotiating positions, why not release a document on its objectives for each chapter?
2. Build trust while online interaction and education.
  • Create a web page showing how negotiations are conducted, clearly explaining the meaning of key terms in the negotiations.
  • Establish a web portal where individuals can comment on specific USTR activities. The USTR should summarize these comments and explain how it will respond to what they say. By creating a feedback loop, more stakeholders and citizens will see US trade negotiators as responsive and accountable.
3. Crowdsource brainstorming.
  • The U.S. Trade Representative should call for (or a university or international organization should convene) public brainstorming on longstanding policy problems bedeviling negotiations. As a theoretical example, the USTR could ask for public input into how to ensure that TPP enhances human welfare in the U.S. and ten other Pacific countries. An Assistant USTR could give a background briefing which does not identify nations, but rather suggests parameters each nation will or will not accept. Then the Assistant USTR should ask for ideas, committing to the consideration of ideas that move processes forward but do not alienate Congress.
  • Experiment with crowdsourcing. The USTR could seek public input regarding new ways of thinking about issues or new ways to help stakeholders. For example, USTR could ask: How can we empower unions in the global economy? Could we negotiate provisions that empower unions as service providers? (Unions might be able to offer training, benefits, and bargaining expertise, as an example. Use this crowdsourcing both to build trust and gain new ideas.
4. Update the language used to defend agreements.
  • The US Trade Representative should not only talk about how trade agreements have enhanced economic welfare, but how they have enhanced human welfare (e.g., access to information, more political participation, cultural exchange, democratization, greater respect for some human rights, improving the rule of law.)
  • Stop using mercantilist arguments. Trade agreements are governance agreements that allow foreign actors the ability to influence governance in our trade partners. They give us leverage. We should show how trade agreements such as TTIP have the ability to create a regulatory race to the top.
5. Make the agreements more coherent in order to build trust.
  • Without deliberate intent, negotiating parties may utilize language in the services, investment, and regulatory coherence chapters that could, for example, undermine labor rights chapters. Depending on how they are written, these chapters could advance labor rights and increase employment, but at the same time they could also have negative effects.


Susan Ariel Aaronson is Research Professor of International Affairs at GWU, where she directs the Trade and Internet Governance Project. She also directs a fellowship program-the eBay Policy Scholars. Her current research looks at government creation, purchase, and use of malware and its implications for economic growth, trust, and human rights.

Written by IIEP Staff Member, Alexa Smith-Rommel


The Institute for International Economic Policy (IIEP), which is located within the Elliott School of International Affairs, serves as a catalyst for high quality, multi-disciplinary, and non-partisan research on policy issues surrounding economic globalization. The Institute research program helps develop effective policy options and academic analysis in a time of growing controversies about international economic integration in many countries around the world. The institute's work also encompasses policy responses for those who face continued poverty and financial crises despite worldwide economic growth. Affiliated faculty have appointments in the departments of economics, history, and political science as well as the law and business schools.

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