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Marketplace
President Obama talks trade

Why the secrecy behind trade talks?

Tracey Samuelson May 5, 2015
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Negotiations are a lot like chess — you’ve probably heard that one before. But in trade negotiations, instead of two players, there are potentially a dozen, each thinking about their best move, each trying to minimize the threat other pieces on the board may pose to them.

“It’s a long, drawn-out process,” says Eswar Prasad, a trade policy professor at Cornell University, adding that working out these deals can take years.

“Typically, the final points of negotiation are not made public,” he says, though generally, “there is awareness of what the big issues are.”

The closed-door nature of the negotiation process has become one of the major stumbling blocks to advancing trade deals currently in the works, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal between the U.S., Japan and 10 other countries.

However, there’s a reason the details are private, says Gary Hufbauer, a former trade negotiator with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“To reach an agreement, one party or the other, has to be seen and reported to be giving up, making a concession,” Hufbauer says. “And since negotiations are all about compromise, that really makes compromise much harder.”

Hufbauer thinks pending legislation could open up parts of the process, but he says making negotiations public in real time would essentially kill these kind of agreements.

Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, thinks the public should know what’s in the deals, especially as they become closer to being finalized.

“I can read the deal and go in and see it, as long as there’s a U.S. trade representative sitting there,” Brown says. “I can’t take notes and take them out of the room. When I’m back in Ohio, my staff can’t go in there, even though she has all the clearance necessary to get access to CIA and Department of the Defense documents.”

He says controls like this make him question what there is to hide.

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