The Corner

National Security & Defense

Globalism and Free Trade: Apples and Oranges

Support for free international trade does not entail support for political globalization. Importing bananas from a country that has a comparative advantage in banana production is in the economic interest of the United States, as is exporting goods in which the U.S. has a comparative advantage. But this economic cooperation among nations is categorically distinct from the sort of cooperation that relinquishes political sovereignty.

It is strange, then, to find political union and free trade so frequently treated as synonyms. Many Trump supporters, for instance, denigrate all advocates of free trade as globalists who want to weaken the U.S. and gradually erase borders. It’s true that some free-trade advocates are also globalists, but many are not.

Writing for the Washington Post, Lawrence Summers seems to elide the distinction between the globalist agenda and economically grounded support for free trade. In the same paragraph, he compares opposition to free trade with opposition to the European Union project — considering them both under the broader category of “global integration.” This idea is meant to include trade, foreign investment, different sorts of international agreements, and political union. Yet these things don’t belong in the same category.

Certainly, many who oppose globalizing efforts such as the EU also oppose the free flow of goods across borders (though I believe this position is wrong). But it’s not true that free trade necessitates political globalization. The EU, for example, has a body of treaties and legislation that affect the laws of its member states. Such political unions undermine national sovereignty and oblige nations to submit to agreements that can be at odds with their best interest as an independent country. Countries have an agreed-upon set of values, a unique history and culture, and particular needs arising from geographical location. International political unions assume these factors and their variations among countries are politically unimportant. Free international trade relies on no such assumption.

Sovereign nations are a condition of international trade as it is usually conceived. Free trade produces net economic gain for all nations involved — it is not a zero-sum game, since traders won’t freely accept a bad bargain. Global trade agreements such as NAFTA don’t erode nations’ political independence. They facilitate universally beneficial exchange without affecting the ways these nations govern themselves. From a historical perspective, trade is considered the peaceful alternative to war and plunder because it is value-neutral (other than the value of economic gain) and because trading partners don’t seek to wrest power from each other.

The distinction between political union and free trade is ultimately crucial because the latter is perfectly compatible with national sovereignty, even though the former fundamentally is not.

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