In case you missed it (I was tweeting about it A LOT last week), Cornell Library’s Digital Collections have just made available an amazing archive – the PJ Mode Collection – consisting of around 800 political maps that should be on the radar of anyone working on imperial and global history. They. Are. Awesome.
Here’s a sampling.
‘The Whole Story in a Nutshell!’ (1888) – Here’s one of my favorites for a lot of reasons. To give it some context, the so-called Great Debate of 1888 (that year’s presidential election) was centered around the future of US trade policy. The GOP was staunchly protectionist and Anglophobic at this time, and they feared the perceived influence of ‘Free Trade England’ on US politics. British free traders (in particular London’s Cobden Club, featured on the bottom left), were the main targets of paranoid Republican protectionist propaganda. Democratic President Grover Cleveland only added to the conspiracy theories when he filled his cabinet and advisors with US members of the Cobden Club. The pro-Harrison map does a vivid job of illustrating the GOP’s economic nationalism in contrast to Democratic free trade. For more on this, my book, The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade, explores the conspiratorial reception of British free-trade ideas in Gilded Age America.
The last twenty-four months have witnessed world-wide dissent against the current regime of trade liberalisation. The United States disengaged from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Britons renounced the EU, and in Tokyo, Sydney, Lima, and other cities across the Pacific Rim thousands protested a potential transpacific trade partnership. While the popularity of protectionism is not unexpected, its recent embrace by political elites everywhere is more surprising. This is particularly true of the United States, which one president ago was still steering the global economy towards freer trade.
In The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Marc-William Palen traces the roots of this debate to the United States in the 1840s. There began a political and ideological battle between Victorian free trade cosmopolitanism and economic nationalism which lasted the remainder of the century and beyond. Talks about tariffs dominated American political life. Through them, Palen is able to tell a much broader story. The Republican and Democratic parties were transformed in the process. Debates about trade influenced the character of American imperial and commercial expansion, as well as the contours of the Anglo-American struggle for empire and globalisation. Palen’s argument that economic nationalism dominated the period also forces us to rethink received notions of the US Gilded Age, which is usually portrayed as an era dominated by laissez-faire and free trade.
We recently met with Marc-William Palen in Bristol, where he resides. He discussed nineteenth century American political thought, the political economy of Anglo-American globalisation and empire in the Victorian Era, and his future research plans. Dr Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade is his first book. You can follow him via Twitter: @MWPalen.
Can you tell us something about yourself? How did you transition from studying classics as an undergraduate to modern globalization and imperialism as a graduate student?
I was at the right place at the right time. In the summer of 2001, in the middle of my classics degree at the University of Texas at Austin, I registered in a spoken Latin program at the Vatican. At that time, anything after the Holy Roman Empire was journalism to me. However, while I was in Rome, the G8 was being held in Genoa. Rome was filled with anti-globalization protesters, as was the rest of Italy. Things turned violent. A protester in Genoa was even killed by the Carabinieri. This was one of my first encounters with anti-globalism. Then, a week after I came back home to the United States, 9-11 happened. All this awoke an interest in the history of modern globalization and how it had shaped the world today.
Jump forward a few years, after studying the classics I found myself working towards an actuarial science degree. I randomly signed up for a class on the British Empire with someone named A. G. Hopkins because I thought it sounded interesting. As I later discovered, Professor Hopkins had only recently arrived at the University of Texas (UT) by way of Cambridge, Geneva, and Harvard. His teaching, mentorship, and scholarship changed the way I viewed the history of empire and globalization. Sometime in the second semester, he pulled me aside and asked if I had ever considered a PhD in history. Professor Hopkins took me under his wing, and I joined the history PhD program at UT in 2007. There I also had the good fortune to be able to work closely with Wm. Roger Louis, as well as H.W. Brands and Mark Lawrence for the American side of things.
After finishing my PhD in 2011, I crossed the Pacific. I spent a year at the US Studies Center at the University of Sydney. It was a very exciting place to be in the midst of the 2012 presidential election. After Sydney, I briefly taught at Tufts before coming here to Exeter. At the time of my arrival, Andrew Thompson and the department were in the midst of launching the Centre for Imperial and Global History, which has since grown by leaps and bounds.
From this came your book. There you trace the tensions between two economic ideologies that shaped Anglo-American visions of empire and globalization. On the one hand are free traders influenced by Richard Cobden (1804-1865), the Victorian Era’s famed radical British free trade and peace advocate. On the other are ‘Listian nationalists,’ whom you characterize after the German intellectual Friedrich List (1789-1846). We know about Cobden, but List is not a household name. Can you tell us more about him and walk us through the broader debate?
List has actually made a bit of a comeback in recent decades. For example, Ha-Joon Chang, a heterodox economist, wrote a popular book in 2002 (Kicking Away the Ladder) borrowing from List’s 1841 National System of Political Economy. In the 1990s, James Fallows also wrote a fascinating piece about List in The Atlantic (‘How the World Works,’ December 1992) after he came across a Japanese translation of List’s critique of free trade, and Fallows used it to highlight debates about what I would call ‘Cobdenite cosmopolitanism’ and ‘Listian nationalism’ in Japan. But, essentially, List was a critic of free trade. He argued that states needed strong protectionist policies alongside strong national institutions and imperial expansion in order to develop ‘infant’ industries. This was very much the opposite of the hands-off, non-interventionist, anti-imperial, free trade arguments of Richard Cobden and his followers. Continue reading “Protectionism and Empire: A Toynbee Prize Foundation Interview with Marc-William Palen”→
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.