In just a few weeks, President Trump has destroyed a system of global trade rules that over the past 75 years brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to most of the world, including the United States. With his threat to levy punitive tariffs on an additional $100 billion in Chinese imports, and China’s vow to fight the United States “at any cost,” the world is now on the verge of the worst trade war since the 1930s.
The President has no interest in history, but for those who may be in a position to block this self-inflicted wound—members of Congress, the nation’s governors, powerful business interests—a quick refresher is in order.
In 1947, President Harry Truman delivered a speech at Baylor University on the eve of an agreement signed by 23 nations in Geneva to create the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Led by the United States, the GATT would be joined by nearly every country, and would oversee during the next half century negotiations that produced the steepest cuts in history in tariffs and other forms of import protection.
The effort culminated in the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, which established the first system of binding rules for resolving trade disputes, precisely for the purpose of preventing escalating trade conflicts.
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