Looking back, it is hard to recall a greater diplomatic achievement than the comprehensive trade and investment agreement that will be signed by representatives of 12 countries in Auckland today. The post-war creation of the United Nations in which New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser played a role may be as proud for those who remember it. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is directly in that tradition.

It represents another advance on the principles of the World Trade Organisation, formerly the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) that was one of the multi-lateral institutions formed by nations seeking world peace and prosperity after two devastating wars.

Even 70 years ago, it proved harder to unite the world on rules for international business and trade than to establish a World Health Organisation and UN agencies for the likes of education and science. The Gatt did not become the WTO until the 1990s when just about all countries in the long communist experiment finally turned to capitalism for the prosperity the West enjoyed. Countries of the former Eastern and non-aligned blocs joined the WTO in droves and its first attempt at a negotiating round stalled on procedures allowed nothing to be agreed unless everything on the agenda was agreed.

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In the wake of Doha, open trading countries looked to bilateral and regional free trade agreements to lower barriers to business and develop fair rules. But unless these agreements were open to all countries that could agree, they could do more harm than good, channelling trade more narrowly. That is what was beginning to happen when New Zealand, with Singapore, Chile and Brunei, made a pact open to more members around the Pacific.

The TPP became hard work once the United States was in and, more recently Japan. New Zealand's hopes that agricultural tariffs and subsidies might be swept away in a "gold standard" agreement were dashed in dealing between the big two, along with Canada's protection of its farmers.

But the fears of many in New Zealand that pharmaceutical purchasing and ICT innovation would be sacrificed for a deal did not eventuate. The protesters who will be out in force today ought to acknowledge this even if they really think the US will be able to impose unacceptable conditions before the deal is ratified.

Their over-riding concern remains that the TPP gives investors the right to sue governments for damages before international tribunals. But this is not a one-way street. New Zealand companies would have the same rights against capricious government actions in countries whose politics are a lot less reliable for investment than New Zealand's. The rights are designed to encourage the international investment that spreads wealth in the world.

The deal being signed in Auckland today embraces 40 per cent of the global economy and covers much more than trade. It covers the range of business rules and governing principles that the WTO has been trying to establish. It is an agreement of historic global significance and New Zealand is hosting the signing in recognition of the role it has played. It might also bid to host a permanent secretariat if one is established. The drive for global prosperity could not be in better care.

Watch here at 11.30am for a live video stream of the TPP signing ceremony:

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