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Do trade negotiations have to be done in secret? Here's what experts think.

- September 24, 2015

A Malaysian container ship is seen in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. (Brian Cassey/AP)
This is the third post based on a semi-regular Poll of Political Scientists (POPS) fielded by Nathan Jensen at the George Washington University School of Business and Michael Colaresi at Michigan State University.
In August, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) announced that he is blocking a trade nominee to protest the Obama administration’s secrecy in the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Even the draft document is classified, which critics find objectionable.
Some argue that complaints about secrecy are merely ways for critics of free trade to take shots at an agreement that is still in the making. The administration and some Republicans say this is “the appropriate level of discretion that’s needed to ensure Americans get the best deal possible.” As Michael Colaresi’s research found, many international negotiations are undertaken in secret.
Yet even supporters of free trade worry that secrecy is irritating many in the U.S. Senate and might lower the probability of ratification.
What do the experts think?
[Experts mixed on effectiveness of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS]
To find out what experts think about the relationship among secrecy, negotiation and ratification of international agreements, we fielded a survey from June 19 to July 6. The panelists were selected from the regular reviewer pool of the journal International Interactions by co-editor Gerald Schneider. We sent out 78 invitations and received 40 responses (although not all respondents answered all of the questions).
We asked three questions. First, we asked experts about their views on international trade in general. Second, we asked the experts their evaluation of how secrecy affects the U.S.’s ability to achieve a good bargaining outcome. Finally, we asked about their opinions on how secrecy affected the probability of U.S. ratification of a negotiated deal.
The experts themselves are relatively divided on the merits and consequences of secrecy in the TPP negotiations. The panel was generally pro-free trade, with the majority of respondents (23/36) agreeing or strongly agreeing that they support trade agreements like the TPP. Only one respondent out of the 36 strongly disagreed, and 5 (14 percent) disagreed that they supported passage of these types of agreements.
[Experts see a Republican Senate and fast-track authority for Obama as keys to new trade agreements]
However, experts disagreed when asked whether secrecy during negotiations helps U.S. negotiators reach a better deal.
Just below a third of respondents (10/33) agreed or strongly agreed that keeping the draft text of the TPP secret made it easier for the U.S. to negotiate a better deal; the same proportion (10/33 respondents) disagreed or strongly disagreed. The remaining third of respondents stated they did not know or did not have an opinion. Not only are the experts divided; many remain uncertain about whether secrecy is a useful strategy, even though some recent political science research suggests that it does.
Interestingly, a majority believed that secrecy made eventual Senate ratification more likely: 21 out of the 34 respondents (53 percent) agreed or strongly agreed, while only a handful disagreed or strongly disagreed.
In open-ended follow-up questions, several respondents explained that they thought secrecy makes ratification more likely because the lack of transparency made it harder for the opposition to mobilize against the deal by focusing criticism on an unpopular aspect of the agreement. Others thought that secrecy made it easier for special interests to capture benefits from the agreement at the public’s expense.
The comments suggest that secrecy has little impact on helping the U.S. get a better deal. Instead, it helps insulate the government from interest-group pressure, whether from business on the right or environmental and labor groups on the left. Whether this insulation is good or bad is in the eye of the beholder.
Finally, we asked experts how secrecy might affect the final stage of ratification. Specifically, we asked them to estimate TPP’s chances of being passed under two scenarios: one in which the TPP draft was not leaked, and the other in which a draft was leaked more than 60 days before a vote. Overall, the experts believe that keeping the draft secret would make ratification somewhat more likely, giving it just 8 percent more likelihood that it would pass. But experts’ estimates were very different, suggesting that there is too much uncertainty to draw firm conclusions from that average.
In short, these experts have mixed views on the importance of secrecy in trade negotiations. Although they generally agree that secrecy can help ratification, they vary widely in their views on how important it is. If they are right, the costs of secrecy may outweigh any potential benefits.
Michael Colaresi is a professor of political science at Michigan State University. Nathan Jensen is an associate professor in the Department of International Business at George Washington University.