Zeiler on Palen, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade

Thomas Zeiler
University of Colorado, Boulder

Thomas Zeiler is Professor of Diplomatic History at the University of Colorado Boulder. He has authored numerous books on U.S. diplomacy and globalization, including American Trade and Power (1992), Free Trade, Free World: The Advent of GATT (1999), Dean Rusk (2000), Globalization and the American Century (2003), and Unconditional Defeat: Japan, America, and the End of World War II (2004).

Cross-posted from E-International Relations

The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896. By Marc-William Palen. Cambridge University Press, 2016

conspiracy of free trade coverIn the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump made trade great again. That is, they reminded us that international trade policy, and particularly the American foreign commercial agenda, is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century, the last half of which is the era of focus for historian Marc-William Palen. The timing is striking. China has replaced European nations as competitors, and monetary manipulation and dumping rather than tariffs are the bete noires today. Yet contemporary protectionists are a throwback to expressions of economic nationalism last heard by a majority of politicians in the decades following the American Civil War. Protectionism guided American trade policies until the Great Depression, when freer (though still cautious) commercial relations traded places with the nationalism that had shaped the United States for its first century and a half.

The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade (the conspiracy a claim by American protectionists based in the Republican Party that British free traders were secretly trying to hinder U.S. prosperity at home and expansion abroad) is a corrective to decades of historiography that laissez-faire doctrine guided the Gilded Age. On the contrary, Palen’s sophisticated look into Anglo-American dialogue and domestic political maneuverings show that “ideological conflict between free traders and economic nationalists laid the imperial path for Anglo-American economic globalization” (xvi). His archival research is solid, though far surpassed by the extensive treatment of periodical and secondary sources; Palen has mined seemingly every commentary on the half century he covers. The author also lays out a simple binary of ideological visions – Cobdenite cosmopolitanism (the free traders) and a Listian nationalism (the protectionists) – that effectively expands the grand debate over the tariff into an even grander one over imperialism (and, in today’s terms, globalization). Continue reading “Zeiler on Palen, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade”