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Protecting Free Trade

Author: Stewart M. Patrick, James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
March 13, 2009
National Interest Online


President Obama has committed to working with U.S. trade partners to avoid "escalating protectionism." He is wise to do so. As never before, U.S. national security requires a commitment to open trade.

President Obama and his foreign counterparts should reflect on the lessons of the 1930s - and the insights of Cordell Hull. The longest-serving secretary of state in American history (1933-1944), Hull helped guide the United States through the Depression and World War II. He also understood a fundamental truth: "When goods move, soldiers don't."

In the 1930s, global recession had catastrophic political consequences - in part because policymakers took exactly the wrong approach. Starting with America's own Smoot Hawley Tariff of 1930, the world's major trading nations tried to insulate themselves by adopting inward looking protectionist and discriminatory policies. The result was a vicious, self-defeating cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation. As states took refuge in prohibitive tariffs, import quotas, export subsidies and competitive devaluations, international commerce devolved into a desperate competition for dwindling markets. Between 1929 and 1933, the value of world trade plummeted from $50 billion to $15 billion. Global economic activity went into a death spiral, exacerbating the depth and length of the Great Depression.

The economic consequences of protectionism were bad enough. The political consequences were worse. As Hull recognized, global economic fragmentation lowered standards of living, drove unemployment higher and increased poverty - accentuating social upheaval and leaving destitute populations "easy prey to dictators and desperadoes." The rise of Nazism in Germany, fascism in Italy and militarism in Japan is impossible to divorce from the economic turmoil, which allowed demagogic leaders to mobilize support among alienated masses nursing nationalist grievances.

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