[Farm Wars: The Political Economy of Agriculture & the International Trade Regime]

By Wolfe, Robert; Cohn, Theodore | International Journal, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

[Farm Wars: The Political Economy of Agriculture & the International Trade Regime]


Wolfe, Robert, Cohn, Theodore, International Journal


Basingstoke & New York: Macmillan & St Martin's, xix, 235pp, US$65.00

Montreal & Kingston ON: McGill-Queen's University Press, xv, 282pp, $49.95

These two books make important contributions to the literature on the politics of agricultural trade, each emphasizing different aspects of the subject.

Robert Wolfe's book discusses the international tensions that culminated in the 'farm war' of the 1980s, and the role of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in bringing about a truce. Wolfe provides a cogent analysis not only of agricultural trade relations but also of trade relations in general, and examines the effects of the farm war on the less-developed countries as well as the industrial states. A major theme of his analysis is that agricultural policy and the functioning of GATT provide good illustrations of Karl Polanyi's 'double movement.' In his 1944 book, The Great Transformation, Polanyi argued that whenever there was an attempt to let the market regulate itself, society moved to protect itself in a 'double movement.' The nineteenth century was an aberrant period in the degree of belief in the self-regulating market, and this attempt to 'disembed' the economy from society contributed to disasters such as the Great Depression and the Second World War. At the end of the War, there was an 'embedded liberalism compromise' (a term coined by John Ruggie), which recognized that efforts to promote openness in the global economy had to include measures to cushion societies from external disruptions. This compromise was evident in the GATT-based international trade regime.

Wolfe discusses how social problems in industrial states have been especially acute in agriculture because rural populations have declined and governments have found it difficult to maintain farm employment and income levels. It was no accident, therefore, that agriculture was treated as an exception in the GATT agreement, which allowed countries to adopt more protectionist policies. Although the special treatment of agriculture did not pose a threat to the global trade regime for many years, Wolfe explains why serious problems eventually developed which culminated in a farm war by the mid-1980s. When the Uruguay Round was launched in 1986, agriculture proved to be a major stumbling block, and it was possible to reach agreement in this Round only after an agricultural accord was concluded. The objectives of the agreement on agriculture, according to Wolfe, were to end the farm war and create a basis for future stability. 'Liberalization was an objective only to the extent that it was a necessary tool of the central objectives' (p 144). Thus, the agricultural agreement was formulated in accordance with embedded liberalism, since it provided farmers with continued protection and permitted them to adjust gradually to increased agricultural trade.

While Wolfe's findings on agriculture are most insightful and rich in detail, some of his statements about global trade in general are debatable. For example, he describes the new World Trade Organization as based on embedded liberalism (p 104) and argues that embedded liberalism is 'an enduring description of our international order' (p 146). Although this is true of more protected sectors such as agriculture, some would argue that neoliberalism has upset the embedded liberal compromise in many other areas. Indeed, one could argue that Polanyi's warnings against the elevation of the 'self-regulating market' may be of some relevance today. Despite this point, Wolfe has written an important book which applies a framework based on Polanyi's influential analysis and deepens our understanding of the reasons why farm wars develop.

Andrew Cooper's book is a valuable contribution to the international political economy literature in several respects. First, Cooper focuses on the policies of two middle powers - Canada and Australia and thus moves beyond the mainstream literature's preoccupation with 'the majors.

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