The World Trade Organization and American Interests

By Kaplan, Morton A. | The World and I, March 2001 | Go to article overview

The World Trade Organization and American Interests


Kaplan, Morton A., The World and I


Morton A. Kaplan is Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago and editor in chief and publisher of The World & I.

Apart from the use of the fuzzy and misleading concept of realism, William Hawkins has made some valuable arguments in his article on the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, some distinctions need to be made that he does not make sharply enough.

First of all, let me agree with Lawrence Lindsey, whom Hawkins quotes disapprovingly. The WTO is the only game in town, and we would have to invent it if it did not exist. World trade is the motor of economic development and prosperity. Without a set of rules governing it, we would be reduced to squabbles of competing nations, with dire consequences for our economic well-being. In purely economic terms, properly regulated international trade is a non-zero-sum game for all the nations of the world, particularly for the developed nations because they can make the best use of it.

However, economic interests are not the only interests that we have. In the 1970s and '80s, I urged several Japanese prime ministers to resist U.S. pressure to open its doors to American farm products to protect Japanese agriculture for its own national security. Were it necessary to preserve the industrial base for our production of naval ships and military aircraft, I would support subsidies on American industries. I doubt that Europe's protection of its farmers serves national security interests. I suspect that European agriculture would be more efficient with larger farms and that protection arises more from political pressures stemming from the large numbers of Europeans, particularly the French, who own small farms than from security grounds.

It is also true that some developing nations cannot afford to liberalize trade too quickly without causing political and economic problems. China, in seeking to enter into this pact, may cause severe dislocations in its farming regions that will genuinely threaten the local populations. In reaching agreement with the United States, the government of China may have believed that on balance it could live with the agreement and that, if not, it could successfully violate it for a while. Certainly, if ideologues who refuse to look at actual conditions write these agreements, they may produce serious problems. But the solution here is practical analysis.

It is quite true that political concerns pollute WTO discussions, and this is perhaps inevitable in democratic systems. But it is important to distinguish among purely economic concerns in which the absence of trade barriers is a non-zero-sum game, security interests that should be excluded from coverage, problems of political and economic stability, and political maneuvering that in principle should be overridden.

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