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Sleepwalking Into a Global Trade War

For 70 years after World War II, global growth was underpinned by ongoing efforts to boost international trade by eliminating self-defeating trade barriers. Sadly, the United States started dismantling this source of shared prosperity under Donald Trump, and it has now accelerated the process under Joe Biden.

WASHINGTON, DC – The world is embroiled in a megacrisis comprising the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine, high inflation, recession fears, and rising debt distress across emerging markets and developing countries. The last thing we need is an additional source of economic harm. But that’s what we may get, in the form of another destructive trade war.

Trade wars are immensely damaging because the countries involved tend to retaliate by erecting ever-higher trade barriers. This vicious cycle was blamed for greatly prolonging the Great Depression in the 1930s, which is why the United States led the effort to develop a new world trading system after 1945, setting the stage for the most successful period of global economic growth in history. For 70 years, global commerce was underpinned by the rule of law, with an international organization – the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was succeeded by the World Trade Organization – ensuring impartial adjudication of disputes.

But starting in 2017, Donald Trump’s administration effectively withdrew US support for the WTO and started a trade war with China. In addition to slapping discriminatory tariffs on imports, it also imposed more sweeping levies on items such as steel and aluminum, dubiously citing “national security” concerns. Though most trade lawyers believed these measures to be illegal under WTO rules, US trading partners abstained from retaliation in the hope that the next administration would roll back Trump’s protectionist policies.