Free Trade in an Age of Terror

The war on terror appears to be causing a surge in protectionism. Some anti-terrorist warriors are so worked up about immigrants that they want to build a wall along the entire United States-Mexican border. They also are fighting the proposed takeover of US ports by a Dubai company, because they fear terrorists could gain vital intelligence from the investments. In Europe, the movement to stop inflows of migrants from Muslim countries is extremely popular.

These developments do not constitute more protectionism in the usual meaning of the term, where private interests subvert the public good, as when farmers charge higher prices because competitive imports are restricted. National security concerns are not foolish. While a nation has a clear interest in the benefits of free and open trade, it also has a vital interest in its citizens’ safety.

National security versus globalization is not an either-or issue though they sometimes come into conflict with each other, so balancing them is the key to successful policy.

US President George W. Bush, for example, is seeking balance on the immigration issue by proposing to restrict, but not eliminate, guest worker entry. His proposal – which lies somewhere between the extremes of building a wall on the US-Mexican frontier and open borders on the other – is the right approach when guest workers could be disguised terrorists. Naturally, the greater the terrorist threat on the border, the more restrictive the policy should be.