No Time for Trade Fundamentalism

CAMBRIDGE – “One of the crucial challenges” of our era “is to maintain an open and expanding international trade system.” Unfortunately, “the liberal principles” of the world trade system “are under increasing attack.” “Protectionism has become increasingly prevalent.” “There is great danger that the system will break down … or that it will collapse in a grim replay of the 1930s.”

You would be excused for thinking that these lines are culled from one of the recent outpourings of concern in the business and financial media about the current backlash against globalization. In fact, they were written 35 years ago, in 1981.

The problem then was stagflation in the advanced countries. And it was Japan, rather than China, that was the trade bogeyman, stalking – and taking over – global markets. The United States and Europe had responded by erecting trade barriers and imposing “voluntary export restrictions” (VERs) on Japanese cars and steel. Talk about the creeping “new protectionism” was rife.

What took place subsequently would belie such pessimism about the trade regime. Instead of heading south, global trade exploded in the 1990s and 2000s, driven by the creation of the World Trade Organization, the proliferation of bilateral and regional trade and investment agreements, and the rise of China. A new age of globalization – in fact something more like hyper-globalization – was launched.