Protectionism 100 years ago helped ignite a world war. Could it happen again?

tags: protectionism, Brexit

Marc-William Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. His book, "The 'Conspiracy' of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896" is now available in paperback.

The liberal economic order that defined the post-1945 era is disintegrating.

Globalization’s foremost champions have become the first to signal the retreat in the wake of the Great Recession. Economic nationalism, historically popular in times of economic crisis, is once again on the rise in Britain, France and the United States. We are witnessing a return to the antagonistic protectionist politics that defined a bygone era that ended with World War I — suggesting that today’s protectionist revival threatens not just the global economy, but world stability and peace. ...

This widespread fear of the global marketplace and the looming threat of tit-for-tat trade wars herald a return to late 19th-century geopolitics. Then, too, many of the leading economies of the day took shelter behind high tariff walls to halt the forces of globalization. Following the onset of an economic depression in the early 1870s, one industrializing country after another turned against trade liberalization. Trade wars, colonialism and closed markets became the name of the geopolitical game.

In stark contrast to today, back then only Britain stuck to free trade with “all the world.” Yet even free-trade bastion Britain was not without its domestic economic nationalist enemies.

In response to the late 19th-century turn to protectionism among Britain’s competitors, formidable right-wing British organizations like the Fair Trade League and the Tariff Reform League emerged to champion retaliatory tariffs and an imperial trade preference system. And the political leader of the turn-of-the-century British imperial protectionist movement was none other than Joseph Chamberlain, Theresa May’s “political hero.”

“Fortress France” turned away from free trade in 1892, the culmination of a decade-long “protectionist backlash” to the ongoing economic depression. The protectionist measure exacerbated the Franco-Italian trade war, which Italy had started with its turn to protectionism in the mid-1880s. Trade between these countries fell considerably, pushing Italy ever closer to Austria-Hungary and Germany — the Triple Alliance — in the years before the First World War.

The United States, however, topped the list of protectionist states. The political and ideological power of protectionism in late 19th-century America — the Gilded Age — was palpable. The Republican Party, formed as the party of antislavery in the 1850s, fast remade itself as the party of protectionism following the Civil War. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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