free trade: International Free Trade
International Free Trade
In 18th-century Britain, free trade eventually came to mean the desire for a moderate tariff policy in international trade, especially with France. The rapid growth of British industry in the late 1700s (see Industrial Revolution) gave added force to the attack on international trade restrictions (see mercantilism). Adam Smith's
After World War I, Britain reintroduced protection and a system of imperial preference in an attempt to establish a greater measure of economic autonomy. France, along with other European nations, historically followed a policy of protection. In the period of international economic dislocation in the mid-1930s, the United States reversed earlier policy and signed reciprocal trade treaties with many foreign governments, embracing a policy of selective tariff reduction for economic and political reasons. At present the United States is a relatively low tariff nation, although it still maintains a fairly restrictive system of import quotas. Japan also has restrictive import quotas, as well as high tariffs and other trade restrictions.
After World War II, strong sentiment developed throughout the world against protection and high tariffs and in favor of freer trade. The results were new organizations and agreements on international trade such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1948), the Benelux Economic Union (1948), the European Economic Community (Common Market, 1957), the European Free Trade Association (1959), Mercosur (1991), and the World Trade Organization (1995). In 1993 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was approved by the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States. In the early 1990s the nations of the European Union (the successor organization to the Common Market) undertook to remove all barriers to the free movement of trade and employment across their mutual borders.
Critics of free trade zones argue that such measures are detrimental to domestic economies. In the case of NAFTA, for example, opponents contended that the jobs of some American workers would be “exported” to Mexico, where labor costs are lower. Many have continued to oppose the international impetus toward freer trade, arguing the accords not only fail to protect jobs in more developed nations but also harm workers and the environment in less developed nations, where the laws are more lax or less enforced. Bilateral free-trade agreements with individual nations or regional trade associations, such as have been negotiated by the United States, Japan, China, and other countries, generally open trade in some areas while preserving the protection of politically sensitive economic sectors.
Despite objections, support for free trade has continued. In 2001, for example, 34 nations of the Western Hemisphere committed themselves to the development of a Free Trade Area of the Americas, though movement toward such an organization subsequently stalled. In 2004 the Central American Free Trade Agreement was finalized by the United States and five Central American nations; the Dominican Republic is also a member of the group.
Twelve Pacific Rim nations, including the United States but excluding China, signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement to reduce or eliminate many tariffs and to set common standards on a number of trade-related issues, in 2016, but criticism of it and other free-trade agreements in the United States during the 2016 elections called into question the ratification of the TPP. Donald Trump, who accused free-trade agreements of harming U.S. workers, withdrew (2017) the United States from the TPP and called for renegotiating NAFTA after becoming president; modifications to NAFTA, which was renamed the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), were agreed in 2018 and 2020. Subsequently, Japan and the European Union announced (2017) an agreement in principle on free-trade deal covering most exports, and the TPP nations signed (2018) a renegotiated Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) without the United States.
In 2018 most African nations signed an agreement to establish the African Continental Free Trade Area, envisioned as a continent-wide single market; trading under the agreement began in 2021. (Several regional African free trade agreements have generally not succeeded in promoting greater and freer trade.) The following year, the European Union signed a free-trade agreement with the South American nations in Mercosur. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, signed in 2020, is an E and SE Asian trade agreement that also includes Australia and New Zealand. Originating in an initiative by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it reduces tariffs less than the CPTPP does but includes China.
See also reciprocal trade agreement.
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