LONDON – At the beginning of the new millennium, when the world was deemed “flat” because of its economic openness, international trade was a subject confined to the business pages and discussions among technocrats. Now, trade tops the political agenda in much of the world; in the advanced economies, it is populists’ favorite horse to whip. Even politicians who once embraced trade deals are now disavowing them.
In Britain, as a result of the Brexit vote, debates about the merits of trade with the European Union’s single market versus trade under World Trade Organization rules are now heard almost nightly. In the United States, both presidential candidates have made opposition to mega-regional trade deals – specifically, the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union – central to their campaigns.
None of this should be surprising, given how sharply public opinion has soured on such trade agreements. Opinion polls on both sides of the Atlantic identify trade as one of the major sources of the discontent roiling the world’s developed democracies. A survey by indicates that approximately 71% of Americans and 58% of Germans believe that their countries should embrace more restrictive trade policies to protect their economies from foreign competition. So the window of opportunity to conclude the TPP and the TTIP is closing; in fact, leaders like French President François Hollande are increasingly adamant that the TTIP is already a dead acronym.
Project Syndicate’s columnists are deeply divided over the meaning of this turn against trade. Is there a risk, as some suggest, that the US – and Britain – could turn the clock back to the 1930s, when the US Congress enacted the Smoot-Hawley Tariff and Britain abandoned the gold standard, allowing sterling to depreciate and triggering a wave of restrictions on international trade and payments? Or is the turn against trade the inevitable reaction to an assumption – that free trade benefits all – that was never true in either theory or practice?