Past as Prologue? Historical Patterns and Discontinuities in Modern Trade Wars

7 Pages Posted: 14 Oct 2019

See all articles by Jürgen Kurtz

Jürgen Kurtz

European University Institute - Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS)

Date Written: October 14, 2019

Abstract

International trade law is under siege. We face imminent stasis in WTO dispute settlement. Substantively too, the rapid outbreak of unilateral deployment of tariffs by the U.S (and then retaliation by China) is putatively WTO-illegal. These developments have shocked the community of practitioners and scholars of the WTO. Against this backdrop, it is tempting to position the current trade wars as a unique threat to both globalization and its institutional manifestations, like the WTO. To my mind, that claim deserves, at the very least, serious assessment. This is not the first time in its modern history that the system of international trade law has been subject to escalating resort to unilateral protectionism by its dominant power. There are important lessons from past trade conflicts that can guide our prescriptions on productive (and even likely) future outcomes, while bearing in mind differences in degree and orientation. A logical comparator here is the dramatic rise of Japan as an economic competitor to the U.S through the 1970s and 1980s (in a period that both preceded and tracked the Uruguay Round negotiations) and the shift in unilateral and multilateral strategies employed by the U.S to manage trade conflict with Japan. This comparator is routinely dismissed by most commentators, largely because of the role of the U.S as a guarantor of Japanese security. While that security umbrella is an important difference when considering the fractious relationship between the U.S and China, there are thick undercurrents in commonality (both substantively and sociologically) that transcend points of variance.

Keywords: Trade wars, WTO, Japan, China

JEL Classification: F02, F13

Suggested Citation

Kurtz, Jürgen, Past as Prologue? Historical Patterns and Discontinuities in Modern Trade Wars (October 14, 2019). Paradise Lost or Found? The Post-WTO International Legal Order (Utopian & Dystopian Possibilities), Kings College London Workshop (2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3469496 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3469496

Jürgen Kurtz (Contact Author)

European University Institute - Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS) ( email )

Villa La Fonte, via delle Fontanelle 18
50016 San Domenico di Fiesole
Florence, Florence 50014
Italy

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