Geopolitical changes were on full display last week at multiple economic summits in Asia, where red carpet pageantry converged with the dramatic publicity of States brokering new deals at the regional meetings for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Viet Nam, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Heads of State Summit and the 12th East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Philippines, the side meetings of the China-led 16-country bloc drafting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Japan-led Trans-Pacific Partnership-11 (recently renamed into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), with considerable focus on United States President Donald Trump’s 12 day tour in Asia for these meetings as well as for bilateral trade talks with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. In Viet Nam, US President Trump suddenly renamed the Asia-Pacific into the “Indo-Pacific”, a deliberate policy strategy to define Asia beyond China’s growing hegemony into a sphere of alliances built with India, Japan, and other Southeast Asian countries.
The Asia economic summits conveyed the implicit assumption that international trade and investment treaties had to be revised or rewritten towards “fair trade”, even if there were differing understandings of what that fairness meant. US President Trump’s address at APEC demanded “fair and reciprocal trade” as part of his ‘America First’ policy, blaming trade agreements for serious US trade deficits with China and other countries. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delayed agreeing to renew the TPP partnership under the aegis of the CPTPP, pushing for Canadian interests in ensuring strict environmental and labour standards in the agreement, and succeeding in suspending the problematic provisions in the intellectual property chapter which the US had originated in the TPP draft. Newly-minted New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern claimed victory with the suspension of investor-State dispute settlement clauses from the CPTPP, in favour of compulsory domestic court adjudication for any investment disputes. In contrast, China took up the cudgels for globalisation and the established institutions and processes of the multilateral system, with Chinese President Xi Jinping firmly declaring at APEC that “economic globalisation is an irreversible historical trend…in pursuing economic globalisation, we should make it more open and inclusive, more balanced, more equitable and beneficial to all.”
The recent pronouncements by world leaders should be of considerable interest to international lawyers, given the heightened political and economic expectations placed on international economic agreements (trade and investment treaties), and what social outcomes they should (or should not) produce beyond the traditionally narrow objectives of liberalising foreign market access. The international economic system is moving towards a multi-speed configuration of States oscillating between competing economic ideologies (e.g. resurgent new forms of “mercantilist protectionism”, revised ‘mainstream’ neoclassical economics, ‘new’ behavioural economics, among others); changing philosophies of government (e.g. the revival of authoritarianism and ‘illiberal’ democracies, leaning away from liberal democracies); evolving theories on the regulation of property, competition, and information given rapidly-developing technologies (e.g. artificial intelligence and the explosion of automation in supply chains, the domestic and transnational social impacts of the digital ‘sharing’ economy, climate change-driven restructuring to consumption patterns and production processes); and expanding understandings of domestic and transnational challenges to global public goods (e.g. environment, health, peace and security, among others). Accordingly, there is an even greater burden for international lawyers (especially those that assist or advise States drawing up their respective visions for a new global economic architecture), to clarify and be transparent about how the political, economic, and social ends sought will be effectively met through the current and future mechanisms of international economic law and its institutions for governance and coordination. Beyond the fog of press publicity, are we candidly and accurately communicating to the politicians the actual limits of international economic treaties, along with their potentials?
In this post, I argue that international lawyers – especially international economic lawyers tasked with drafting, revising, critiquing, and building the new bilateral, regional, and global constellation of economic treaties – increasingly have to deepen interdisciplinarity, and not just in the sense persuasively observed by Tom Ginsburg and Gregory Shaffer as the “empirical turn in international legal scholarship” (106 American Journal of International Law (2012), pp. 1-46. Perhaps more fundamentally, international lawyers need even more interdisciplinarity, because we are at present hard-pressed to approximate, if not achieve, an idea of “fairness” in the international economic system’s treaties and institutions (no matter how contested that sense of “fairness” is, to begin with). If we accept that the “fairness of international law” is legitimately our concern as international lawyers and scholars (as Thomas Franck famously argued), we should be more open to readily engaging the interdisciplinary assumptions marshalled in the reform and remaking of international economic treaties and institutions today.
While we may not of course be the experts in these other disciplines, and we should, indeed, preserve the “relative autonomy” of international law (as Jan Klabbers cautions), some sharpening of our interdisciplinary sensibilities can nevertheless be useful in helping us to test the “good faith” nature of any postulation or assertion on the desired weight, form, content, and structure of our international economic treaties and institutions. I use three examples of unstated assumptions in the debate over international economic treaties today that illustrate where interdisciplinarity is sorely lacking: 1) that international economic treaties can somehow erase trade deficits and permanently prevent trade imbalances; 2) that international economic treaties can anticipate and provide the most appropriate and suitable dispute resolution mechanism for the particular States parties to these treaties – for the entire life of these treaties – which is problematic with the growing depiction of a supposed ‘binary’ choice between investor-State dispute settlement mechanisms (ISDS) and local court adjudication (and/or political risk insurance); and 3) that international economic treaties can be designed to fully create desired social, environmental, labor, health, education, and all public interest outcomes. I posit that while interdisciplinarity may show us that international economic treaties could be a correlative, if not possibly one of the causal, factors for desired outcomes, and that we can probably design them with sensitivity and vigilance towards controlling the negative externalities they cause and encouraging positive distributive consequences, the international economic treaty-writing (and rewriting) exercise is complex. We cannot – as politicians do – simplistically oversell or lionise these treaties as somehow the definitive “one size-fits all” solution to remake the world towards “fair and reciprocal trade”.