THESE past weeks, as United States President Barack Obama has sought fast-track trade authority (aka TPA) which would permit him to bypass normal congressional debate on treaties, and to sign on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), he has suffered several setbacks.
These are notable because the opposition came not from the Republicans who have opposed this President on nearly every important piece of legislation, but from members of his own Democratic Party.
Progressive Democrats and the more conservative Black Caucus members refused to be seduced by appeals to loyalty or the promises of jobs.
A significant proportion of American voters are expressing their opposition to the TPPA - one Republican congressman acknowledged that his phone calls were running 100-1 against. Whether their collective will can prevail against the well-financed corporate lobbyists is anyone's guess.
The debate itself is, nevertheless, of interest. In part, it's the strange bedfellow line-up of Obama and Republican leaders against Democratic leaders and rank-and-file members, but the content is also worth understanding.
Americans have experienced the dubious benefit of cheap imported foreign goods, which they now understand as benefiting large manufacturers and retailers while their jobs were exported overseas.
Beyond extolling the material benefits of trade comes a recent column with a moral twist by David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, whose consistent conservative views are often cloaked in a modernist Calvinism.
Like our own Prime Minister John Key, Brooks attributes the poverty experienced by many Americans to poor choices - that is, bad character. Brooks upbraided those Democrats who voted against TPA, calling them Tea Party Democrats, an insult that conflates opposition to TPPA with a Republican group distrustful of all governmental function, especially the provision of a social safety net.
Brooks made two arguments:
1. The TPPA would alleviate poverty in poorer nations, several of them trade partners, so opponents were therefore implicitly selfish.
2. He also claimed that in absence of the TPPA's establishment, the influence which the US has had in the Pacific Rim would give way to that of China. Opponents were insufficiently patriotic.
Critics were uniformly disdainful of the first argument, rightfully pointing to the evident poverty right there in the US which had not elicited much sympathy from Brooks and other Republicans.
The second rationale for the TPPA is relatively novel, but Brooks is not alone in pressing it. When the House of Representatives refused Obama's TPA last week, White House spokesman Josh Earnest made a similar statement tying the TPPA to the national security interests of the US.
The blatant admission that the US sees the trade pact as a means of countering the interests and influence of China ought to make the New Zealand Government sit up and take notice. Not only should we question the wisdom of becoming a pawn in an Asian version of the Great Game of historic infamy, but there is the question of New Zealand's independent interests in establishing greater trade with China and gaining less fettered access to a market of nearly two billion people.
For many Americans, whether blue-collar working class or white-collar middle class, the lure of jobs as a carrot for trade deals won't work. They've seen that rabbit disappear back into the magician's hat.
The next appeal - that of national security - may reflect a previously hidden agenda. Or dragging out the old patriotism appeal may simply reflect the willingness of the pro-TPPA group, Republican conservatives and the centre-right Obama administration, to pull out all the stops.
The TPPA may not be good for ordinary working Americans. Is it any better for New Zealanders?
I've opposed American imperialism in its military adventurist forms, whether in Vietnam or in the Middle East. The use of exclusionary trade pacts as another form of attempted hegemony, this time in Asia and against China, has no greater appeal.
In those past great adventures, the failures hurt most the average person and their family on both sides of the conflict. This corporate-sponsored trade war looks no different.
Jay Kuten is an American-trained forensic psychiatrist who emigrated to New Zealand for the fly fishing. He spent 40 years comforting the afflicted and intends to spend the rest afflicting the comfortable.