International Trade

The Smoot–Hawley fixation: Putting the Sino-US trade war in contemporary and historical perspective

The extent to which the Sino-US trade war represents a break from the past is examined. This ongoing trade war is benchmarked empirically against the Smoot–Hawley tariff increase and against the sustained, covert discrimination by governments against foreign commercial interests witnessed since the start of the global economic crisis. The Sino-US trade war is not the defining moment that some contend. Thus, laying the blame for the current woes of global trade entirely at the feet of policymakers in Beijing or Washington, D.C., is unfounded. Since the rot started well before 2018 and implicates many states, greater attention should be given to the factors determining the unilateral commercial policies of governments during and after a systemic economic crisis. The insights from the economic history literature of the 1930s presented here are useful in this regard. Moreover, claims that existing multilateral trade rules have bite are hard to square with the very large shares of global trade affected by policy measures favouring local firms implemented over the past decade. When confronted with severe adverse economic conditions for better or for worse, WTO members had plenty of policy space after all.