Cool the Talk of TTIP as an 'Economic NATO'

Calling the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) an "economic NATO" seems logical enough, but the comparison should not be taken too far.

The build-up to and launch of TTIP negotiations between the United States and the European Union has led to a flurry of debate and speculation about what the world's largest trade and investment deal could herald. The deal could bring welcome opportunities for economic prosperity in the U.S. and Europe, and the chance to push wider global trade negotiations. It also offers the West a geopolitical tool, and it is this that has attracted deserved but sometimes excited comment.

By uniting the two core parts of the West, TTIP would allow them to engage emerging economic powers which are quickly shaping the global economy. By bringing together 40 percent of the world economy, rules agreed across the Atlantic could then form the core of global rules and norms, shaping the rise of new powers. Some commentators have gone so far as to declare that TTIP could be an 'economic NATO.'

The metaphor seems logical, and in part it is. For more than 50 years the two sides of the North Atlantic have pursued various policies to bind themselves together economically to complement NATO's military bonds. If the U.S. and the Europeans can combine their economic power then, like NATO, they would command the planet's most powerful and transformative economic relationship.

But it pays to be circumspect when making the comparison.

To point out the obvious, TTIP will be a disparate, loose partnership spanning a wide range of political, economic and social issues. It will be more fragile compared to a long-standing military alliance, shaped by war and with its own command structure, common institutions and doctrine.

Like NATO, TTIP will play an important socializing role, shaping a common outlook by bringing together regulators, officials and decision makers. This could help ensure that standard setting and norms are not lost to countries such as China. But this will not be the outcome of some careful, coordinated, top-down, strategic plan driven by clear ideological goals. It will instead be a product of the sheer size, openness and appeal of a market of 815 million people, two-thirds of the richest states in the world.

TTIP is also intended to bring some balance to a transatlantic relationship dominated by NATO and discussions about defense spending. Comparing it with NATO creates an expectation that it will stand as an equally important second pillar of the relationship. Yet the economic rise of new powers is being complemented by increases in military power, meaning NATO is not likely to lose its preeminent position. And comparisons with NATO point to an alliance dominated by the outlook and strategies of the U.S., a situation likely to continue given defense cuts in Europe. In comparison TTIP is intended to be a partnership of equals.

The U.S. is quite open that it hopes TTIP will push Europeans into debates about geopolitics and geostrategy, something 'civilian power' Europe has long resisted. While this is welcome, talking of 'economic NATO' implies not only a degree of convergence with U.S. thinking, but when coupled with fears of growing protectionism in Europe, could provoke fears and suspicions that this is a Western attempt at a protectionist, regional bloc, a 'fortress Atlantic.'

The rest of the world could be forgiven for such thinking given NATO was formed to face the threat of the U.S.S.R. But TTIP is about opportunities to enhance growth, create jobs and keep global standards high. It is not directed at anyone or anything in particular. Comparisons then with a military alliance make for bad marketing. It runs the risk that powers such as China or Russia will misinterpret it, forming their own blocs in response. Ironically TTIP may end up being the foundations for a genuine 'economic NATO'.

Similarly, selling TTIP at home in Europe and the U.S. is not helped by comparisons with the military. Civil society groups, already suspicious of the closed, secretive nature of the negotiations, will find comparisons with NATO befitting. And further military comparisons are the last thing anybody needs when the NSA's spying activities in Europe already cast a shadow over negotiations.

And should we be lauding NATO by comparing it with TTIP? While NATO's achievements are too often overlooked, it has struggled to find unity and leadership. For all its incredible efforts, it will find it difficult to herald its withdrawal next year from Afghanistan as a victory. If TTIP fails to materialize, then it will collapse at the same time as NATO suffers its latest low point. For the West - and the watching world -- this would mean the failure of military NATO and 'economic NATO.'

But this is not simply about marketing, it's also about delivery. The outcome of TTIP will take years to emerge, its existence shaping global outcomes over the longer-term. To be fair, NATO had a long-term aim of containing the USSR, one it delivered through a culmination of small and big changes. But since 1990 we have come to think of NATO as a military alliance that goes places and does things. Concrete gains from TTIP will not appear so quickly.

By making comparisons with NATO we are in danger of overlooking how TTIP can rejuvenate the domestic economies of Europe and the USA. The geopolitics of facing a changing world will only be possible if we manage ourselves better. Here we should indeed look to NATO, but not as model for how to try and change the world, but to take heed of the many problems it has faced in encouraging unity, better spending, investment, modernization and cooperation.