Goodbye, Free Trade; Hello, Mercantilism

Article excerpt

Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

As countries grow more interdependent, they're also becoming more nationalistic.

Here's today's quiz. What do the following have in common: (a) Vladimir Putin; (b) China's currency, the renminbi; (c) the U.S.-Peru trade agreement; (d) Hugo Chavez. Answer: they all reflect the "new mercantilism." It's a significant and ominous development affecting the world economy. Even as countries become more economically interdependent, they're also growing more nationalistic. They're adopting policies intended to advance their own economic and political interests at other countries' expense. As practiced until the mid- 19th century, mercantilism aimed to do just that.

It was an economic philosophy that favored large trade surpluses. At the time, this had some logic. Trade was an adjunct to military power. Exports earned gold and silver coin, which financed armies and navies. But mercantilism fell into disfavor as a way to promote national prosperity. Free trade, argued Adam Smith and David Ricardo, would benefit all countries, because each could specialize in what it did best -- the doctrine of "comparative advantage." The post-World War II economic order took free trade as its ideal, even though trade barriers were lifted slowly. Now mercantilism is making a comeback, as governments try to manipulate markets to their advantage.

The undervalued renminbi is the most glaring example. China's leaders have staked their country's political stability on export-led job creation, driven by an artificially cheap currency that puts competitors -- Mexico, India and other developing countries as well as the United States and Europe -- at a disadvantage. Naturally, China's trade surpluses have swelled. In 2007, the current account -- a broad trade balance -- will register a $400 billion surplus, about 12 percent of gross domestic product, up from $21 billion, or 1.7 percent of GDP, in 2000, according to economist Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute. As a share of GDP, China's current-account surplus is "triple Japan's level in the 1980s when Japan bashing was at its peak."

Mercantilist notions also affect the energy trade. "A Bear at the Throat" is how The Economist recently described Europe's reliance on Russia for about a quarter of its natural gas. Putin talks of a world gas cartel, and Europeans fear that their heavy dependence exposes them to political blackmail. Chavez is already less subtle. He dispenses Venezuela's oil to Cuba and other friendly Latin American countries at discounted prices. The specter is that scarce energy supplies, now available to all on commercial terms, will be increasingly allocated by political commitments.

Finally, the retreat from global trade agreements also reflects the new mercantilism. …