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Widespread recognition that international cooperation is needed does not in and of itself mean that it will occur. This was one of the lessons for trade integration in the interwar period, when governments were unable through proclamations and solo measures alone to arrest the cycle of retaliation that followed the US Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, resulting in high tariff levels and rising tensions among the major powers. It is that experience that demonstrated the destructive potential of unilateralism in the trading system and led former US Secretary of State and Nobel Prize winner Cordell Hull and others to negotiate the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). Its rationale – or “GATT-think” – was that reciprocal liberalization would curb unilateral protection and the negative externalities that result from uncoordinated and nontransparent actions in a trading system with many partners (Bagwell and Staiger, 2002). In Hull’s thinking, trade liberalization dovetailed with peace, which was his overarching ambition.
Whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks result in a “high-quality, twenty-first century” trade agreement will depend on the inclusion of new and innovative approaches to persistent trade challenges. Among the new approaches proposed, regulatory coherence appears to have the greatest traction.
Pushed by the United States, with the strong support of Australia and New Zealand, the stated goals of the TPP negotiations on regulatory coherence are to eliminate unnecessary regulatory barriers and make TPP member countries’ regulatory systems more compatible and transparent. Topics addressed in the negotiations will reportedly include mechanisms to achieve greater domestic coordination of regulations, facilitate the adoption of mutual recognition agreements, and increase transparency and stakeholder engagement. US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Trade Representative Ron Kirk, have cited the negotiations on regulatory coherence as the means by which the TPP talks will improve competitiveness, food safety, and the ability of small and medium businesses to engage in international trade. The US business community is enthusiastic; US regulators and some TPP member countries are reportedly wary. A few commentators have condemned the negotiations as addressing matters unrelated to trade.
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