The Future of Trade Deals? Digital, Green, Values-Based

The Inadequacy of Traditional Trade Models

For decades, trade agreements focused heavily on reducing tariffs, quotas and other border restrictions between countries. But in today’s globalized world, that narrow approach is wholly inadequate to address pressing challenges at the intersection of commerce, technology, climate and ethics. As trade governance responds to new complexities, progressive provisions around digital rights, sustainability and human values are moving front and center alongside market access.


The old playbook of traditional free trade agreements (FTAs) falls short on multiple fronts. They inadequately regulate cross-border data flows and tech firm behavior. They lack enforceable climate and environmental standards. And they enable outsourcing production to jurisdictions with poor labor protections or human rights records. If trade pacts are to keep pace with the times, reforms are essential.


Innovations in Progressive Pacts

Recent precedents like the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) and Digital Economy Partnership (DEPA) agreements demonstrate the shifting FTA landscape. USMCA notably includes new labor provisions like a minimum wage requirement for certain auto parts. DEPA – between Singapore, Chile and New Zealand – contains groundbreaking digital trade rules around data flows and localization, AI governance, and consumer protections.


Watchdogs urge even bolder vision in future accords. Climate activists demand binding commitments to reduce emissions and phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Digital rights groups want bans on mass surveillance and mandatory human review of algorithmic decisions. Labor advocates call for linking trade access to enforcing core ILO conventions against workplace discrimination and child labor. The path forward lies in making shared values, not just economic liberalization, the center of gravity in twenty-first century trade partnerships.


Toward a Sustainable Digital Trade Future

What could a framework for truly progressive FTAs entail?

First, state-of-the-art digital provisions should be table stakes – from prohibiting data localization mandates to requiring algorithmic transparency for tech platforms. Second, every agreement must address climate change through concrete mitigation commitments and cooperation mechanisms. Third, enforceable labor and human rights protections should be integral. Fourth, trade incentives like tariffs cuts would be tied to environmental and social performance metrics for accountability. And fifth, trade distorting subsidies for carbon-intensive sectors must be phased out.


The global crises of climate, inequality and democratic recession demand a new playbook. Trade policy either exacerbates those threats or contributes solutions. By making shared values the keystone of twenty-first century FTAs, governments can re-align trade with public interests for sustainability, technology justice and universal human dignity. The future must be progressive.

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