According to a longstanding international relations theory, the global economic order is at its most orderly when there’s at least one hegemonic free-trade champion.
As per this theory, Britain took this role upon itself in the mid-nineteenth century, ushering in a brief transatlantic flirtation with trade liberalization and relative hemispheric peace.
The United States was the first major nation to turn against this mid-nineteenth century free-trade epoch. From the Civil War to the Great Depression, the United States instead embarked upon nearly a century of Republican-style economic nationalism, which I’ve explored in my own work.
But this began to change following the Second World War when the United States assumed the mantle of free-trade hegemon. Promising prosperity, profits, and peace to the world, it sought to foster international trade liberalization through supranational initiatives like the International Monetary Fund (1944) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1947), the latter of which morphed into the World Trade Organization in 1995.
Well, the times they are a-changing again.
Trump’s fast-developing protectionist and ultra-nationalist “America First” program has signalled that the United States is abdicating its role as free-trade leader. As the New York Timesnoted earlier this month:
President Trump’s advisers and allies are pushing an ambitious idea: Remake American trade. They are considering sweeping aside decades of policy and rethinking how the United States looks at trade with every country. Essentially, after years of criticizing China and much of Europe for the way they handle imports and exports, these officials want to copy them. This approach could result in higher barriers to imports that would end America’s decades-long status as the world’s most open large economy.
The Trump regime’s protectionist trade vision is fast becoming reality.
So what does this mean for the future of the global economic order?
Still basing your Gilded Age foreign policy lecture—perhaps reduced now to just a PowerPoint slide—on the quest for markets a la William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and Walter LaFeber’s The New Empire?1 Marc-William Palen convincingly argues that it is time for a change. According to Palen, lumping all the Gilded Age administrations from Grant to McKinley into proponents of an undifferentiated “Open Door imperialism” misses essential differences between the Democratic Grover Cleveland administrations and those of the Republicans and, more importantly, falsely paints free traders as imperialists and obscures the protectionist, closed door bent of the actual imperialists. By focusing our attention on the debate over tariffs waged by Cobdenite free traders and Listian economic nationalists—protectionists—from the early days of the Republican Party through McKinley’s election in 1896, Palen offers important contributions to our understanding of imperialism, the development of American political parties, and Anglo-American relations. In so doing, he smooths out the story of nineteenth-century U.S. foreign policy, which often skips abruptly from the end of the Civil War to the start of the Spanish-American War. Continue reading “Re-thinking “Open-Door Imperialism””→
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).
In 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”→
Accounts of late-nineteenth-century US expansionism commonly refer to an open-door empire and an imperialism spurred by belief in free trade. In his new book The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Marc-William Palen challenges this commonplace. Instead, he notes, American adherents to Richard Cobden’s free-trade philosophy faced off against and ultimately lost to a powerful version of protectionist economic nationalism inspired by German-American economic theorist Friedrich List. The success of Listian protectionism spurred closed-door, aggressive US expansionism and also challenged free-trade orthodoxies in Britain, where political-economic policy also shifted toward protectionism by the end of the nineteenth century.
How the 1888 elections decided the protectionist course of U.S. economic expansion for decades to come.
For most people alive today, Republicans have been the advocates of a free trade strategy for the United States, while the Democrats usually have sat on the fence.
The emergence of Donald Trump brings back the memory of when it was the other way around – when Republicans vehemently opposed open trade relations with the world, while Democrats advocated for free trade.
Era when Democrats were pro-free trade
The year was 1888, the tail end of Grover Cleveland’s first administration (1885-89). He was the only Democrat to hold the U.S. presidency in the half-century since the Civil War. And because of his actions, it was the tariff question that overshadowed all other economic issues that year.
The “Great Debate” of 1888 over U.S. trade policy arose after Cleveland, in his December 1887 annual message to Congress, had voiced his support for freer trade.
It’s a difficult time to be an optimist. It doesn’t help that history is very nearly repeating itself. The Brexit referendum has hammered home how historical memory is far shorter and inaccurate than we might have feared. For example, nationalistic pro-Brexit Britons marked the centenary of the bloody Battle of the Somme this past weekend, either unaware or uncaring of the irony that the world war that wrought the same bloody battle arose largely because of extreme European nationalism, economic autarky, and disunity.
Granted, the current global crisis has many aspects that are unique to the 21st century. But there also many striking parallels between the situation today and the struggles that occurred during the global economic depressions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (These periods even had their fair share of international terrorism.) Now more than ever we need to be revisiting these earlier controversies over globalization and international conflict in order to find historical precedents, parallels, and lessons – so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.
Featuring Marc-William Palen (Exeter), Helen Milner (Princeton), Bill Galston (Brookings Institution), Carla Hills (former US trade representative), David Auter (MIT), David Taylor (Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association), Bruce Springsteen, and Ferris Bueller, Edward Stourton examines America’s long history of resistance to free trade, and asks why it has again become such a potent political force in a new documentary for BBC Radio 4.Continue reading “Donald Trump and the History of American Protectionism: A New Documentary”→