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On sovereignty and international agreements

“Save our sovereignty” is a rousing catch-cry, but it’s a useless guide to international agreements.

National sovereignty’s been a recurring theme in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But the assertion rarely gets the examination it deserves, particularly for an argument that works against virtually every international agreement in existence.

It’s easy to see what makes the slogan attractive. There’s a strong, natural and relatively universal impulse to defend our right as a country to decide things for ourselves. This isn’t a bad impulse to have—indeed, I hold it strongly myself.

The problem is that any acceptance of an international agreement necessitates a loss of sovereignty. This includes every trade agreement that New Zealand is currently party to, every treaty and human rights convention. It would have included the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Kyoto Protocol and its successor. Yet most TPP opponents, who happen to align politically left, would surely not believe that any country should have refused to sign those treaties. So what gives?

The difference between the “sovereignty” we gave up in signing Kyoto and what we will give up in signing the TPP is actually very obvious. The left likes what Kyoto binds us to do, but not what the TPP would. But in that case, national sovereignty is not a useful discriminant. The real question is whether the agreement is a worthwhile exercise in the first place.

Of course, that debate is far too complex to address in political rhetoric. As many have noticed, it depends on what’s in the agreement. What opponents probably mean when they talk about “sovereignty” is the tendency for TPP clauses to step on areas traditionally outside the domain of trade liberalisation. Indeed, almost everyone in New Zealand, including TPP proponents, opposes (for example) the intellectual property provisions sought by the United States. The question is whether such hurdles in negotiation should be cause to abandon the agreement altogether.

There’s probably a deeper question: many TPP opponents oppose free trade generally, but for other, better reasons of economic ideology. Still, it’s issues like intellectual property (which affects Pharmac, New Zealand’s drug-buying agency) that are the sticking points. Indications from Wellington and leaked documents are that New Zealand negotiators oppose these provisions. Free trade supporters, then, see it as just a challenge to work through; opponents see no hope.

But what’s sovereignty, anyway?
Would signing the TPP mean giving up our sovereignty? On closer reflection, it depends what we mean. Every time I sign a contract, say, accept a job offer, I’m giving up some self-determination: I accept an obligation to do something for someone else, in return for their commitment to doing something for me. In that sense, countries always lose some right to decide for themselves when they commit to multilateral agreements.

Yet by the same token, one might see it as a sovereign right to choose to enter agreements with other countries. Countries that signed Kyoto did so (presumably) because they figured that, if everyone was bound to cut emissions, progress would be better. If we thought it was a good idea, it was in our prerogative to sign up.

At this point, I’m playing with semantics. What does it mean to be a sovereign country? The problem with the former definition is that it literally prohibits all international agreements. While there probably exist some who would agree with that, I doubt that it describes most TPP opponents. The latter definition, though, renders the concept of sovereignty somewhat useless. By that conception, what agreement would violate sovereignty? Does it require the agreement to be somehow revocable?

Use better arguments
You could dig into this as deep as you like. But if you question an opponent hard enough, no-one actually cares about sovereignty, per se. They either care about specific provisions that it would be stupid to commit to (and make no mistake, in its current form there are quite a few), or they generally disagree with market liberalisation. Neither of those stances are unreasonable, and there’s nothing wrong with some healthy scrutiny. It would just be nice if we stuck to arguments that matter.

Picture credit: NZ Herald

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. speters855 #

    what provisions do you see as not in NZ’s interests? I heard that Pharmac could be undermined, for ex. I suppose that would be a bad thing? I guess the loss of ‘sovereignty’ is the banner under which opponents can, well, oppose the TPPA. To me it sounds much like PTA, and PSA – so I don’t like the sound of it, anyway.

    31 March 2014
    • Chuan-Zheng #

      My understanding is that it’s mainly the intellectual property provisions, but the reach would be far, including Pharmac and overly-strict copyright and parallel import laws. The government’s also hinted at concerns dairy might not be included. I don’t think there’s any domestic controversy about whether those provisions are bad though, just whether it means we should turn our backs on negotiations completely.

      I should say that the yardstick isn’t necessarily New Zealand’s interests, per se—I think those provisions are bad in general. And although I’ve phrased my counter-objection in terms of New Zealand, it also applies to similar objections that have been raised (with lower profile) in America, and probably elsewhere too.

      31 March 2014

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