Reinforcing the U.S. Role as a Global Leader Through the Trans-Pacific Partnership

SEPTEMBER 29, 2016

I was delighted to visit the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday morning to discuss the connection between America’s strategic leadership and our policies on trade.

This debate -– about the virtues of free trade and the diplomatic value of close economic ties to other countries –- is nothing new. It dates back to our founding fathers; it has continued in each generation since; and it reflects a larger question that we have been posing to ourselves throughout our history:

Should we use our many advantages to help lead the world or should we stand apart from it and pretend that we could somehow survive on our own? Should we engage far beyond the water’s edge or use our coasts as barriers to try and keep the world at bay?

Whatever the answer at a particular moment, there is no evading the fact that America, from its earliest days, has been a maritime nation, a manufacturing nation, and an agrarian nation all at the same time. And through the years, we have pursued overseas ties that helped us to sell our products abroad and to establish our country’s reputation as a land of innovation and opportunity. Increasingly, we came to understand the link between our well-being and that of people abroad, while others increasingly drew a connection between their destiny and ours.

The world we live in today is more complex than ever before. It is more crowded, more inter-dependent, less hierarchical, more influenced by non-state actors, and where economic issues and social, political, and security concerns are inextricably intertwined. But for all this complexity, the basic question persists: What is America’s role in the world, and how should we play it?

Today, the answer, in my judgment, is as clear as it has ever been -– we, the United States, have to lead.

Our leadership demands our constant commitment to initiatives that advance our interests and promote our values, including high-standard, innovative proposals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP –- an agreement that is about boosting our economy at home and deepening our commercial ties in key markets, as well as strengthening our national security and strategic leadership in Asia and across the globe.

We need to begin with a very fundamental proposition in understanding this agreement: either the United States of America is an Asia Pacific power or we are not. And if we want to demonstrate that we are, in fact, a Pacific Power -– as we have been for decades -– we can’t just declare it and expect our other countries to believe us; we have to show it in our actions and in our choices. Because, in this day and age, international friendships are based to a large measure on consistency of action, consistency of purpose, and consistency of partnership.

For more than a century, that consistency is exactly what leaders in Asia have come to expect from the United States, and there are a host of good reasons why: For starters, the United States is one of the few nations that straddle the divide between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Add to that the strong economic bonds that we have already developed in the region -– five of our top ten trading partners are in Asia. Beyond that, we have decades-long security alliances and a history of defense cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines; we consult closely with partners in APEC and ASEAN; and our shared diplomatic agenda covers a host of mutual concerns, including counterterrorism, nonproliferation, climate change, cyber security, protection of the ocean environment, sustainable fishery practices, maritime security, and human trafficking.

The fact is our presence and our actions in the Asia Pacific are essential for the protection of our own interests. 

When crises arise in Asia, the impacts are felt in the United States, which means that it is to our benefit to be able to have a positive influence on the course of events in Asia. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is central to that effort because it will reinforce our status as a world leader intimately connected to the dynamic economies of the Pacific Rim –- among the fastest-growing markets in the world. And it will help strengthen norms and standards that are important to every citizen in the United States of America.

However, if we reject TPP, we take a giant step backward. We take a step away from this vital platform for cooperation. We take a step away from our leadership in the Asia Pacific, away from the protection of our interests and the promotion of universal values, away from our ability to shape the course of events in a region that includes more than a quarter of the world’s population – and where much of the history of the 21st century is going to be written.

TPP is a vehicle for deepening our commercial bonds that will also steer us towards closer commercial and diplomatic ties in the region. It enhances our national security. It gives us greater credibility in cooperating with our Pacific partners on a long list of shared challenges.

Simply put, TPP is a key way to gauge American engagement in the Asia Pacific, in parts of our own hemisphere, and around the world. It is an essential platform for developing even closer diplomatic and strategic connections with our regional friends.

If we retreat from this agreement, every government in the region, every business, every labor union, every group of environmental advocates, and the commanders of every army and navy will notice.  They will notice it in a way that does not work for the United States of America. It will be a unilateral ceding of American political influence and power with grave consequences for the long term.

Even as we come to appreciate the national security stakes of adopting –- or rejecting -– TPP, we cannot lose sight of the economic case for this agreement, which is intimately tied to our strategic leadership as well.

I’ll be the first to say that we absolutely need to have a national debate about the TPP, but that debate ought to be based on facts, not exaggerated and misguided fears and negative mythology. And the facts tell a pretty compelling story. The truth is TPP will unite nearly 40 percent of the global economy, stretching from countries like Canada and Chile on one side of the Pacific to Japan and Australia on the other. It is predicted to lift incomes for American workers. It will open up more markets to our farmers, ranchers, factories, and businesses of every size –-and these are markets that include tens of millions of middle class American consumers.

TPP is an agreement that is designed for the realities of the 21st century. To grow your company and expand the economy of the United States today, we have to export -– because 95 percent of the world’s customers live overseas. This is an era when trade in services is accelerating all around the world; when products move over land, sea, air, and cyberspace; when globalized supply chains means goods cross borders multiple times before they go up for sale. This is a period when trade rules have to factor in things like investment flows, digital commerce, intellectual property, data protection in ways that were completely unheard of in the past.

TPP was negotiated with the dynamic nature of our economy front and center.

Despite what some may claim, trade is not what is responsible for the complex economic challenges that we face in the world right now.  Just consider all the forces that go into shaping a modern economy –technology the movement of capital, research, markets, natural resources, human resources, education, training, infrastructure. Far more than any trade pact, these things either drive an economy forward or hold it back. We have to remember this as we consider and assess the value of TPP.

Now, no one is promising that TPP is going to solve all of our social or economic challenges. But by refusing to participate in TPP, I can promise that our competitiveness is going to suffer. Our economy will fall a step behind. We will miss out on opportunities in some of the fastest growing markets on the planet.

On the flip side, voting “yes” on TPP will open the door to the wide array of benefits produced by any good trade deal -– because these agreements, when well-designed, can make economies more efficient. They reward productivity and competitiveness. They stretch paychecks by giving consumers a broader range of affordable choices. They create vital export opportunities for our farmers and our ranchers and manufacturers. And they give our businesses, large and small, the ability to hire more workers at higher wages by selling more goods and more services to customers abroad and by enlarging your market place, which, given the internet, is accessible to even the smallest business in America today.

TPP will do all of these things, but with one added positive twist: any country that signs TPP is signing on to the highest-standard trade pact ever reached. These standards on labor, the environment, and other key issues are not part of a side deal that was reached and easily ignored. They are within the four corners of this deal and are fully enforceable, which means that each participant has to keep the promises they make or face tough sanctions for every violation.

This is central to our strategic interests because higher standards mean more open markets, safer workers and workplaces, a cleaner environment, stricter intellectual property protections, less corruption, increased transparency, better governance, and greater accountability. These elevated standards can give to people across the Pacific Rim a window into a future of reform and human rights, a smoother and more equitable path to prosperity, an ample reason to build up businesses and communities, and never turn to tearing down their societies and resorting to conflict.

Here’s another thing to remember: if we don’t set these rules and advance our values in the context of our trade agenda, have no doubt that others will be all too eager to fill the void and move in the direction of lower standards – or no standards at all. Right now, there are already countries in the region negotiating agreements on their own that leave the United States out. Those agreements are not focused on protecting workers’ rights or clean air or clean water or intellectual property or a free and open internet.

So the choice for us is clear: help define the shape of global trade and strengthen our security and our strategic leadership in the process, or cede the playing field to countries and actors who don’t care about high standards, who would rather ignore the rule of law, and who would prefer if the United States took a back seat in the Asia Pacific.

We cannot renege on this deal and think that doing so somehow gives us an advantage in trade or on any other issue. We can’t withdraw from TPP and still be viewed as a central player in the Pacific Rim and an undisputed force for peace and prosperity across the globe.We cannot disengage without consequence or abdicate our responsibilities and still expect the world to observe high standards, and, most importantly, to trust us to keep our word when the question isn’t trade, but urgent matters of public safety, stability, and security.

Our partners worldwide need to know that they can always look to the United States for principled leadership – no uncertainty, no doubt. The Trans-Pacific Partnership will send that message loud and clear to the nations of the Pacific Rim and to countries across the globe.

About the Author: John Kerry serves as the 68th Secretary of State of the United States. 

Editor’s Note: The above was adapted from speeches delivered on September 28, 2016, at the Woodrow Wilson Center. You can read the remarks here. This entry orginally appeared on