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Don’t Cry Over Dead Trade Agreements

CAMBRIDGE – The seven decades since the end of World War II were an era of trade agreements. The world’s major economies were in a perpetual state of trade negotiations, concluding two major global multilateral deals: the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the treaty establishing the World Trade Organization. In addition, more than 500 bilateral and regional trade agreements were signed – the vast majority of them since the WTO replaced the GATT in 1995.

The populist revolts of 2016 will almost certainly put an end to this hectic deal-making. While developing countries may pursue smaller trade agreements, the two major deals on the table, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), are as good as dead after the election of Donald Trump as US president.

We should not mourn their passing.

What purpose do trade agreements really serve? The answer would seem obvious: countries negotiate trade agreements to achieve freer trade. But the reality is considerably more complex. It’s not just that today’s trade agreements extend to many other policy areas, such as health and safety regulations, patents and copyrights, capital-account regulations, and investor rights. It’s also unclear whether they really have much to do with free trade.