Timothy Meyer

Influential international law scholar focuses on trade, investment, foreign relations, and using trade agreements to address climate concerns

Timothy Meyer, an international law expert whose scholarship focuses on international trade and environmental law, joined the faculty in July as the inaugural Richard Allen/Cravath Distinguished Professor in International Business Law.

Most recently he was professor of law and director of the International Legal Studies Program at Vanderbilt Law School.

An elected member of the American Law Institute, Meyer serves on the board of editors of the American Journal of International Law. He has testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees and is on the European Union’s list of potential arbitrators for disputes under its trade agreements.

He taught International Arbitration and International Environmental Law in the fall semester and, with Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law Laurence Helfer and Jeffrey and Bettysue Hughes Professor of Law Rachel Brewster, serves as co-director of the Center for International and Comparative Law.

“Tim Meyer is an innovative and engaging scholar who does cutting-edge research on important and interesting international law and foreign relations topics, including energy and climate regulation,” says Helfer. “He is a creative generator of new ideas and a pleasure to collaborate with. We are very fortunate that he has joined the Duke Law community.”

Meyer earned his BA and MA in history from Stanford University and his JD and PhD in jurisprudence and social policy from UC Berkeley School of Law, where he held a Public Policy and Nuclear Threats Fellowship from the National Science Foundation and the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. From 2007 to 2008 he clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Meyer served from 2008 to 2010 in the Office of the Legal Adviser in the U.S. Department of State and began his academic career at the University of Georgia School of Law, where he taught for five years before joining Vanderbilt Law.

Working at the nexus of trade and sustainable development

Meyer’s recent scholarship focuses on the role of trade agreements in addressing environmental considerations, particularly those related to climate and energy; the role of trade agreements in promoting and addressing economic inequality; and the role of the different branches of government, particularly Congress and the president, in formulating the answers to those questions and trade policy more generally.

Brewster calls Meyer’s scholarship examining how domestic politics shapes international agreements “important for real-world policy making.”

“Particularly in the international trade and energy field, his work has been critical in connecting academic debates to current policy proposals,” she says.

Meyer’s policy recommendations on addressing climate change through global decarbonization reflect deep knowledge of the mechanisms and nuances of international laws and treaties and offer innovative, practical ways of getting around their restrictions. In “A Green Steel Deal: Toward Pro-Jobs, Pro-Climate Transatlantic Cooperation on Carbon Border Measures,” Roosevelt Institute (June 2021), Meyer and co-author Todd N. Tucker suggest a sectoral strategy in which the United States, members of the European Union, and other nations would form a “carbon customs union” to impose a common tariff on carbon-intensive steel imports from non-participating countries. Their proposal also would give member countries the flexibility to decarbonize domestic steel production through diverse strategies suiting their particular legal and political constraints. For example, absent Congressional support, a U.S. president could levy the common tariff through the Trade Expansion Act and overhaul domestic production standards through regulatory agencies.

“Particularly in the international trade and energy field, his work has been critical in connecting academic debates to current policy proposals.”

— Professor Rachel Brewster

“Climate change is not going to give us the time to develop a single decarbonization program that works and can be legally implemented by all the world’s major economies,” Meyer and Tucker write. “Our approach would thus allow countries to lean on their existing authorities to implement the Green Steel Deal.” In October 2021, several months after the proposal’s publication, the United States and the European Union announced their intention to negotiate a Global Arrangement on Sustainable Steel and Aluminum, which the White House called “the world’s first carbon-based sectoral arrangement on steel and aluminum trade” and under which “the United States and European Union will work to restrict access to their markets for dirty steel.”

In “A Pragmatic Approach to Carbon Border Measures,” 21(1) World Trade Review 109, Meyer and Tucker address the barriers that the World Trade Organization’s primary rules present to a carbon customs union and domestic decarbonization measures, and they suggest workarounds, such as invoking and reinterpreting WTO exceptions. Giving countries space within WTO rules to decarbonize without fear of losing disputes before the body would help them achieve their carbon reduction goals while minimizing economic incentives for companies to move well-paying jobs to countries with lower environmental standards, they maintain.

“The climate crisis is poised to become the most significant trade issue of the next decade,” Meyer and Tucker write. “Building political support to tackle that problem today … requires offsetting the costs of decarbonization with other economic benefits. At a minimum, it requires a trade policy that does not penalize countries economically for pursuing decarbonization measures.”

Meyer addressed the political and social consequences of trade liberalization and proposed solutions that would bolster popular support for free trade in “Saving the Political Consensus in Favor of Free Trade,” 70 Vanderbilt Law Review 985 (2017). There, he suggests including an “economic development chapter” in preferential trade agreements that would commit developed nations to spending an indexed portion of trade gains on fiscal programs that remedy domestic economic inequality. In “Misaligned Lawmaking,” 73 Vanderbilt Law Review 151 (2020), he argues that an economic development chapter or sunset clauses in trade agreements could help ensure that the social safety net for those adversely impacted by trade agreements keeps pace with the program trade liberalization created by those agreements.

“Trade agreements create huge benefits for the country as a whole, but they create really concentrated losses in some communities,” Meyer says. “If you want to help those communities by providing them retraining programs, extended unemployment, relocation assistance, or any of other kind of trade adjustment assistance, Congress has to reauthorize the program because it requires money.

“In my view, having a functional, well-thought out, well-designed trade adjustment program that is linked to our trade liberalization policies, so that you don’t have to negotiate adjustment assistance separately, is absolutely critical to solving some of the problems that we’ve had in trade policy. It helps those communities hurt by trade liberalization and in so doing helps prevent a backlash against trade agreements.”

Leveraging presidential powers in trade policy

Including enforceable environmental and labor rights commitments in U.S. trade agreements is a relatively recent development, Meyer says. Strengthening enforcement of these commitments gained significant traction as the Trump administration sought to leverage domestic concerns over the role of trade liberalization in economic inequality, renegotiating trade agreements such as NAFTA and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“On economic inequality, both the Trump and Biden administrations have been interested in using trade policy more aggressively than prior administrations to address a range of what historically we might have thought of as non-trade issues,” Meyer says.

Meyer also co-directs the Center for International and Comparative Law, where he will bring a spotlight on how international trading systems can help mitigate the climate crisis.

“But the Biden administration is also interested in how you can use trade policy to promote labor rights, human rights, and environmental protections abroad, not just economic security domestically, and that widening of the frame, I think, is quite useful.”

The Biden administration also appears to be less interested in large-scale, economy-wide trade agreements that characterized policymaking during the Clinton, Obama, and both Bush administrations in favor of smaller agreements that address a different range of priorities and may do so through different formalities than prior agreements, he says. That reflects a shift toward pursuing international cooperation through non-binding agreements, a trend Meyer identified early in his academic career that has recently begun to influence trade law. That work is developed in a forthcoming book, Goldilocks Globalism: The Rise of Soft Law in International Governance, with USC Gould School of Law Dean Andrew T. Guzman, to be published by Oxford University Press.

In another project, Meyer is examining how the softening of trade law may affect the role of Congress in overseeing trade policy. While the Constitution clearly delegates control over foreign commerce to Congress, since the 1930s trade policy has been dominated by the executive branch, he says, and presidents of both parties often have acted unilaterally, using executive powers to bypass Congress in international agreement negotiations.

“When confronted with a Congress that is unwilling or unable to work with them, presidents start relying on both their constitutional power as the president as well as what are sometimes very broad delegations of authority and general statutes that are often quite old, and using those kinds of powers to try to advance a policy agenda that has stalled in Congress. The next couple of years will show if that trend continues, or if the Biden administration is successful in engaging Congress as an equal partner on these trade policy questions.”

Making Duke a center for solutions on climate and trade

Meyer names two renowned figures in international law and economics— Guzman, a frequent collaborator, and Berkeley Law professor Robert Cooter — as influences on his scholarship and teaching. He credits his father, a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice who later served in both the New York and Connecticut state legislatures, with helping to focus his career objectives. His five siblings have all pursued careers devoted in some way to serving the greater public good, he notes. And working for Gorsuch instilled the justice’s famously accessible approach to legal writing.

“Justice Gorsuch and I don’t always agree on things,” Meyer says. “But he’s a tremendous writer and thinker, and he drilled into his clerks that a client should be able to understand the essence of a legal opinion or decision — why they won or lost their case — without having to ask a lawyer. I found that a really clarifying way to think about communication.”

Helfer, who invited Meyer to his first academic conference while he was still a lawyer at the State Department, also has been an invaluable source of advice.

“The Center for International and Comparative Law is one of the finest international law programs at any law school in the country, and the international LLM program was also a draw,” Meyer says. “The history, the program, the opportunity to work with Larry Helfer and Rachel Brewster, and the way the LLM program draws in students, both generally but the international law program specifically, were what drew me to Duke.”

As co-director of the center, Meyer hopes to bring a focus on leveraging international trade law to help solve the climate crisis.“So much of the carbon that is emitted is effectively  emitted through production processes or embedded in products that are then consumed or traded elsewhere, so tackling that problem really requires thinking holistically about how you integrate international trading systems and environmental systems,” he says.

“I’ve done some work at both the academic and policy level on how you would do that, and I think there’s an opportunity for the center to be a place that convenes people who are working at the intersection of policymaking and academic pursuits.”

Share this article:

Magazine Cover -- Man sitting at desk on a zoom call on exercise ball with a dog curled up beside him

Spring 2023
Volume 42 No. 1