Protecting Free Trade

President Obama is nervous about rising protectionist sentiment—and he should be. If we don’t curb economic nationalism, it could deepen the financial crisis.

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.

Open economic warfare poisoned the diplomatic climate and exacerbated great power rivalries, raising, in Hull's view, "constant temptation to use force, or threat of force, to obtain what could have been got through normal processes of trade." Assistant Secretary William Clayton agreed: "Nations which act as enemies in the marketplace cannot long be friends at the council table."

This is what makes growing protectionism and discrimination among the world's major trading powers today so alarming. In 2008 world trade declined for the first time since 1982. And despite their pledges, seventeen G-20 members have adopted significant trade restrictions. "Buy American" provisions in the U.S. stimulus package have been matched by similar measures elsewhere, with the EU ambassador to Washington declaring that "Nobody will take this lying down." Brussels has resumed export subsidies to EU dairy farmers and restricted imports from the United States and China. Meanwhile, India is threatening new tariffs on steel imports and cars; Russia has enacted some thirty new tariffs and export subsidies. In a sign of the global mood, WTO antidumping cases are up 40 percent since last year. Even less blatant forms of economic nationalism, such as banks restricting lending to "safer" domestic companies, risk shutting down global capital flows and exacerbating the current crisis.

If unchecked, such economic nationalism could raise diplomatic tensions among the world's major powers. At particular risk are U.S. relations with China, Washington's most important bilateral interlocutor in the twenty-first century. China has called the "Buy American" provisions "poison"-not exactly how the Obama administration wants to start off the relationship. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's ill-timed comments about China's currency "manipulation" and his promise of an "aggressive" U.S. response were not especially helpful either, nor is Congress' preoccupation with "unfair" Chinese trade and currency practices. For its part, Beijing has responded to the global slump by rolling back some of the liberalizing reforms introduced over the past thirty years. Such practices, including state subsidies, collide with the spirit and sometimes the law of open trade.

The Obama administration must find common ground with Beijing on a coordinated response, or risk retaliatory protectionism that could severely damage both economies and escalate into political confrontation. A trade war is the last thing the United States needs, given that China holds $1 trillion of our debt and will be critical to solving flashpoints ranging from Iran to North Korea.

In the 1930s, authoritarian great-power governments responded to the global downturn by adopting more nationalistic and aggressive policies. Today, the economic crisis may well fuel rising nationalism and regional assertiveness in emerging countries. Russia is a case in point. Although some predict that the economic crisis will temper Moscow's international ambitions, evidence for such geopolitical modesty is slim to date. Neither the collapse of its stock market nor the decline in oil prices has kept Russia from flexing its muscles from Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan. While some expect the economic crisis to challenge Putin's grip on power, there is no guarantee that Washington will find any successor regime less nationalistic and aggressive.