Free trade is a route to greater prosperity and better government but its biggest advocate has retreated from its crucial role
US foreign policy was something that people loved to hate. America was portrayed as a global bully who pushed everyone else into playing by its rules. The Iraq War is perhaps the most obvious example of this but the conflict also marked a turning point when the US started to withdraw from its dealings with other countries. While this might appear to be cause for rejoicing, the retreat of the US from international affairs has left a gap that has yet to be filled. A lack of impetus in the promotion of free trade is one key area where the world is missing the US in a way that is not yet widely understood.
More than just buying and selling across borders
Free trade is something that many people would be glad to see the end of. It allows for greater globalization which has been vilified as costing jobs and hurting our economy. Although a source of pain for some in the West, globalization has been a boon for most of us, providing a range of cheaper goods for everything from bananas to iPhones. At the same time, export industries in less developed countries have pulled millions out of poverty.
Openness to free trade with the rest of the world involves more than just exporting and importing. It is part of a bigger package that includes less overall regulation and more economic freedom. This may not seem like much to those in countries that already have this in place, but to places under the rule of an autocratic government, it is something worth fighting for. Such a battle has dominated the news so far this year as it plays out in Ukraine.
The protests that overthrew the oppressive regime in Ukraine were triggered by the government stepping back from an EU trade agreement and instead opting for a closer relationship with Russia. This was taken to have the broader meaning that the Ukrainian government was choosing the autocratic style of government characterised by Russia rather than the democratic freedoms of the EU. Yet, the unrest in Ukraine shows the preference of its citizens and how opening up to trade (and expansion of the EU) can spur on hearts and minds when seen as part of a bigger picture.
Free trade can have a positive influence in other ways as in Japan. Political lobbyists such as farmers have tended to block greater access for imports into Japan. Japanese politicians are apt to side with such vested interests instead of with voters in general who would benefit from cheaper imports. In the past, it has only been pressure from outside the country - typically from its main ally, the US – that has helped open Japan up to free trade. Delayed but critical reforms needed to fire up the Japanese economy could be pushed through if a deal were to be done on the Trans-Pacific Partnership which is a free trade zone encompassing countries on the Pacific Rim.
China can only offer so much
The fight for free trade typically needs a champion. This is because the negative impact of greater trade is concentrated in a few sectors which are proactive in their opposition. The gains from more open borders are, on the other hand, spread out amongst us all, resulting in only weak support. Thus, despite the substantial advantages of free trade, progress has been halting. The problem is exacerbated by each country having its own boisterous domestic forces against free trade so that getting a large number of governments to sign up is a tricky proposition.
The US government had been the driving force behind free trade, using access to its own lucrative domestic economy as a bargaining piece. Rather than being a bully, the US spread economic freedoms through trade like a benevolent power. But, the US no longer has the ability or willingness to play this role. A rebalancing of the global economy means that the lure of the US economy pales in comparison with other countries such as China. The weakening of its relative economic strength also means that the US is less generous in its bargaining with other countries. This is reflected in the stalling of what was supposed to be the next big round of global trade talks which started in Doha in 2001.
The lure of Western ideals as embodied in free trade still remains. Countries clamber to join the European Union despite its recent troubles. Economic power may be shifting away from the US and Europe but their democratic style of government is still sought after by many (although politicians have not been showing themselves in a good light). Free trade in itself is not the answer but it will help push many countries in the right direction.