DURING much of the period between the two world wars the search for economic solutions for the problem of world peace centered on methods of reforming international trade. Today, however, many economists, as they work on plans for reconstructing the world economy when this war is over, are focusing their attention on methods of developing industrially backward areas. They relegate trade policy to the background. In their view, the expansion of world trade is to be stimulated directly through capital investment rather than indirectly through removing the obstacles to importing and exporting.

The reasons for this shift in emphasis are not far to seek. The failure of attempts at tariff reform after the First World War either through multilateral or unilateral action was most discouraging. The World Economic Conference of 1927, for all its brave resolutions, produced only an abortive tariff truce. Within a few years, tariffs were moving rapidly upward. Then the onset of the Great Depression drove many nations to seek economic salvation by nationalistic policies. The United States in 1930, with the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, and the United Kingdom in 1932, with the Import Duties Act and the Ottawa Agreements, led the retreat toward autarky. Attempts to achieve international coöperation at London in 1933 ended in disaster, and from that date until the outbreak of the Second World War the increase in restrictionist measures of all kinds was practically universal. In the United States, it is true, trade agreements concluded under the Act of 1934 checked the upward surge of tariffs and facilitated the reduction of barriers to imports, both in the United States and in certain foreign countries. But it cannot be claimed that the Hull program accomplished a major and general reform in commercial policies.

A second reason for the recent neglect of commercial policy by many economic planners is their mistaken notion that the diffusion of technical knowledge to industrially backward countries will remove the raison d'être of foreign trade. They base it on the false assumption that international trade consists for the most part in exchanges between primary producers and industrial countries. Actually, the latter often find the best export markets for their manufactured goods in other industrial countries. For example, in 1938, about 40 percent of the exports of the industrial countries of continental Europe was marketed in the industrial countries in that same area. Technical progress stimulates trade among industrial countries, and, by reducing transportation costs, promotes all international trade.

It should be emphasized again and again that commercial policy must not be neglected if the purposes of postwar planning in the economic field, as announced in the Atlantic Charter and reiterated by President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and other leaders of the United Nations, are to be accomplished. Full employment, higher living standards and greater economic security for all peoples everywhere are not impossible goals; but they cannot be attained except by the most effective use of the world's resources, both human and material. In other words, economic reconstruction cannot succeed unless means are found to take maximum advantage of the territorial division of labor through a progressive expansion of the volume of international trade.

Look at it from another point of view. Granting the necessity for a frontal attack on reconstruction problems by international development schemes, we should not forget that a large and expanding volume of export and import trade is essential to make such schemes fully effective. Unless the new investments are to be pure gifts, we must rely on trade, both bilateral and multilateral, to make possible the transfer of interest and dividends. Furthermore, we cannot expect the new enterprises established in backward countries to flourish unless they have access to markets wide enough to guarantee operation at optimum efficiency.

These considerations lead to the conclusion that the tariff-reform approach to economic reconstruction is not antagonistic, but rather is supplementary, to the investment or development approach. Action leading toward the removal or reduction of trade barriers, then, is an essential item on the agenda of reconstruction.


We must not make the mistake of framing programs and setting up new institutions to deal with conditions that no longer exist. We must keep our eyes focused on 1945-65, not on 1919-39.

At the end of this war, foreign trade carried on by private enterprisers for their own account will practically have ceased to exist. The import trade of every great trading nation will be either in the hands of government trading agencies or of closely regulated quasi-government agencies. Export trade will be regulated by licensing systems.

We shall also find at the end of the war that all over the world -- in the areas controlled by the United Nations as well as those still belonging to the Axis Powers -- the exigencies of war, the blockade, the lack of shipping, the lend-lease agreements and the purchasing policies of the United States and of the United Kingdom will all have dug new trade channels and cut new patterns of geographical specialization. One obvious development has been the closer integration of the economy of the United States with that of Canada. The trade relations between the United States and the United Kingdom also will have become quite different by the end of the war from those prevailing in 1937 and 1938. English textiles, chinaware, cutlery and leather goods, for example, will have practically disappeared from our markets. On the other hand, through the operation of the lend-lease agreements, our farmers will have secured, temporarily at least, greatly enlarged British markets for their cheese, lard, eggs and milk products. Our trade relations with other parts of the world will also have greatly changed. Latin American economies will have been bound more closely to ours through the operation of the agreements to purchase rubber, tin, manganese, wool, hides and many other strategic materials, and through interlocking export controls.

We must recognize that the blocking of old channels of trade and the cutting of new ones are accompanied by far-reaching changes in national economies. Within the United States, the conversion of the automobile industry to the production of airplanes and tanks is only one of many similar but less spectacular transformations. Before the war ends, we may find comparable changes in American agriculture; wheat land, for example, may have been shifted to dairying. In South America, Australia, China and other industrially backward areas, the war will have stimulated the development of manufactures of many kinds. Which of these changes are to prove permanent, which are to be only "for the duration"? This question the policy makers in every country will have to determine; private enterprise will not be able to cope unaided with the huge task of demobilization, but will require assistance from government. The competent authorities will therefore have to make up their minds which of the new developments they wish to retain and which they will discard as economically or socially undesirable.

Many of the wartime mechanisms for the control of foreign trade will be maintained, but an attempt will be made to transform them into instruments for relief and for the rehabilitation of national economies. In the case of certain countries, such as the United Kingdom, the protection of the balance of payments will be a vital matter. Other countries will use import and export controls to procure, or to safeguard, supplies of indispensable raw materials and foodstuffs, as well as to protect the value of their currencies. In all cases, the action taken by the state will have its effects on the economy and the policy of others. In particular, the effects of the policies adopted by the United States will be felt all over the world.

We have abundant evidence from the experience of the years 1919-39 that, if the various nations act independently, each for himself and the devil take the hindmost, even the strongest cannot escape disaster. Hence, there will be urgent need for the coördination of national commercial policies, as well as of other branches of economic policy, by some international agency. Such a body should also provide the means whereby trade policies shall supplement and reënforce the plans which are internationally adopted for the development of industrially backward areas, for the stabilization of currencies, for facilitating migration, for improving nutrition and for other essential features of a general program of economic reconstruction.

The suggestion has been made that the agencies for economic coöperation already established to coördinate the wartime efforts of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom furnish the prototypes of postwar agencies. Among the wartime agencies cited are the United States-Canadian Joint Economic Committee, the tripartite Combined Production and Resources Board and the combined United States-British boards dealing with food, raw materials and munitions. The chiefs of these agencies and their personnel have gotten to know each other, have formed the habit of joint action, and have learned to operate wartime trade controls which can be adapted for reconstruction purposes. But the suggestion that these bodies merely should be perpetuated overlooks two grave defects in the present organization of economic warfare: (1) no effective coördination has yet been made of the efforts of the various boards and committees dealing with trade controls; and (2) no provision has been made for the uniform representation, on all the ad hoc bodies, of all four principal allies, the United States, the United Kingdom, the U.S.S.R. and China. To supply coördination and proper representation a new international body is needed. It is needed during the war for the more effective use of the economic resources of the United Nations; it will be needed after the war to prevent the recurrence of the exaggerated economic nationalism which wrecked the last peace.

The following pages outline the organization and functions of such a body, which might be known as the International Trade Authority. To confine the argument within practicable limits, two assumptions are made about the postwar world: (1) that there will be in existence a general international organization providing a considerable degree of political security, thus relieving any nation of the need to build up its self-sufficiency for military reasons; and (2) that measures of both national and international scope will prove reasonably successful in maintaining full employment, thus removing one of the reasons why nations exclude goods of foreign origin from their domestic markets.


The proposed International Trade Authority should be set up at once. It should be composed, provisionally, of representatives of the United States, the United Kingdom, the U.S.S.R. and China (the constituent nations) and other countries. Eventually it should be reconstituted as a formal agency of the projected overall international organization.

During the war, the Trade Authority should attempt to bring about the reduction or removal of barriers to trade among the United Nations, particularly any which are hindering the war effort. President Roosevelt's Message to Congress of December 23, 1941, recommended that legislative and administrative barriers, including tariffs, import duties, customs and other regulations or restrictions of any character which impede the free flow of munitions and war supplies between Canada and the United States, should be eliminated for the duration of the war. Congress paid no attention to this request. On November 2, 1942, therefore, the President repeated and enlarged it. "The needs of the war effort," he said, "have multiplied our demands for a maximum and integrated war production not only at home and in Canada, but in every country of the United Nations. We must further take advantage of possibilities of procurement from every available source, foreign or domestic." He asked Congress to give him wartime powers to suspend laws hampering the free movement of persons, property and information into and out of the United States.[i]

The Trade Authority should also begin an immediate study of the plans which the United Nations, and especially the four constituent nations, are now making for postwar trade, in order to try to forestall restrictive measures and to stimulate interest in an expanding use of the world's resources. In this way the United Nations would begin preparations for the reform of their tariffs and trade policies in the period while the war is actually being fought and while the desire to bend all their energies toward a common goal is still strong.

In the years just after the war ends, the Trade Authority would coöperate with other agencies of the overall world organization (e.g., an International Shipping Board, an International Development Corporation and an International Commodities Corporation) to direct the flow of trade among nations in such a way as to facilitate the transition everywhere from a war economy to a peace economy. Its basic activities in this period would probably be: (1) to assemble information regarding deficits and surpluses, in various countries, of the types of goods needed for relief and reconstruction; (2) to assist national governments and international agencies to arrange for transportation credits; (3) to study tariff systems and to lay plans for the abolition of injurious trade barriers; (4) to plan for the gradual elimination of directed trade and for the transition to operations of free enterprisers in a large segment of international trade.

In the transition period, it is true, continued wartime controls, the activities of government trading agencies, and government direction of the flow of imports and exports will limit the area in which private traders may operate and in which customs tariffs are significant. Even in the second period of reconstruction, after a wide area of action has been restored to private trading, the traditional methods of tariff reform will not prove adequate. Experience shows that we cannot rely upon the separate action of national states to adopt tariff policies which, in the long run, will further either their own interest or that of the community of nations. But the free flow of international trade is of such vital importance to all nations, and particularly to some of the smaller and weaker states, that no nation should be able, by its independent and arbitrary action, to interrupt trade or divert it into unproductive channels.


We cannot expect that national states would be willing to give any international body the power of absolute veto over their tariff laws and regulations. The tradition that tariffs are matters of national policy probably is too deeply imbedded in the national consciousness, and the pressure of vested interests is too strong, to make such a sweeping change possible. But does it seem too much to expect that an agreement could be reached whereby the member states of the general international organization would consent to delay putting new tariff legislation and regulations into effect until the Trade Authority could investigate the economic background of the proposed changes and announce their probable consequences?

To accomplish this purpose, the constituent nations and others which later joined them in the general organization, might agree to submit to the Trade Authority proposed increases in import and export duties, thirty days before these were to be put into effect, and to do the same with all proposed changes in quotas, licensing systems and in customs laws and regulations which would interpose new or additional obstacles to international trade. Further, they might agree that whenever the Trade Authority found that the proposed increases or changes seriously threatened to disrupt international trade, or to set in motion dangerous deflationary movements in another state, or otherwise to injure gravely another state's economic life, then the Trade Authority would have the right to require that their operation be suspended for a period of ninety days while it made further investigations and prepared recommendations.

In order for such investigations to be effective, member states would have to give competent agents of the Trade Authority access to official records and in other ways to facilitate their work. The Trade Authority, for its part, would have to give all states involved an opportunity to present evidence and argument. At the conclusion, it would approve or disapprove the proposed changes and notify the competent national body. In case of disapproval, the Trade Authority should recommend modification or abandonment of the new legislation or regulations. If the competent national body did not accept the recommendation, it should be bound to reënact the original proposals before they become effective. The Trade Authority meanwhile would make its report public, outlining the significant facts in the case and giving its findings and recommendations. In this way it would be able to mobilize public opinion and to strengthen the forces in favor of liberal trade policies.

In the writer's opinion, the Authority ought not to be bound by any formula such as the cost-of-production rule which hamstrung the United States Tariff Commission. It should judge each case with reference to the conditions which gave rise to the proposal for changes, the possibility that alternative remedies might serve, and the probable extent of the injury to be suffered by other states. In particular, it should take into account the needs of industrially backward states for greater economic diversification, but it should avoid favoring a blanket application of tariff protection to all infant industries. It should recognize that diversification can often be brought about more effectively, and with less international friction, by the use of direct subsidies or other forms of assistance to producers (e.g., technical aid) than through customs duties and other restrictions on imports.


It will not be enough simply to stabilize tariffs. Tariff duties will have to be reduced and international trade will have to be freed from other restrictions (particularly on the part of the older industrial countries) if the world is to attain the economic security and the rise in living standards which are the goals of the Atlantic Charter and the lend-lease agreements. Past experience, and particularly that of the years 1919-39, shows that it is a delusion to expect great commercial nations, acting independently, to make substantial reductions in the tariff walls which they have put up around their industries and agriculture. Vested interests in continued tariff favors are too strong and too concentrated to be overcome by a much greater but diffused general interest. Nor is the cumbersome process of tariff bargaining to be relied on to accomplish the extensive reduction in tariff barriers essential to postwar peace and prosperity. Inescapably we arrive at the conclusion that international action is necessary.

It therefore is proposed that the states belonging to the general international organization agree to undertake immediately after the close of hostilities: (1) the gradual reduction of all protective import and export duties; (2) the gradual elimination of the restrictive uses of licensing systems for imports and exports; and (3) the gradual abandonment of the use of import and export quotas, except such as might be necessary to facilitate the trade between a state with a liberal trading system and one having a planned economy, or between two planned economies, and except in so far as tariff quotas might be useful in facilitating the reduction of import duties. They should further agree to undertake (4) the gradual abolition of all import and export prohibitions except those necessary to protect public morals, public health and the health of plants and animals, and to maintain public safety. The drive to remove tariff barriers should be emphasized in the case of mature countries where the process of industrialization is well advanced. "Newer" countries should be allowed to retain tariffs necessary for the development of infant industries suited to their particular economic resources.


It should be the endeavor of nations to abolish customs discriminations so as to place those states with which they trade on an equal footing. Certain nations may claim that they must continue to make bilateral agreements in order to protect their balance of payments. Such claims should be given close scrutiny by the International Trade Authority, which should attempt to devise substitute policies more in line with the general aims of sound reconstruction policy on the basis of equal treatment. Hence the writer urges the advisability of an agreement that not later than five or ten years after the close of hostilities the nations will undertake to abolish all discrimination in their commercial policies and in the administration of exchange controls.[ii]

The definition of "discrimination" raises the problem of preferential tariffs and customs unions. Present usage does not consider that the most-favored-nation clause is violated when a country accords tariff favors to another country with which it maintains especially close political relations, as for example in the Ottawa Agreements and in our reciprocal preferential arrangement with Cuba. But there is grave danger that the clause may become so weakened by these and other exceptions and interpretations that it will lose all real significance. The wise course, however, would seem to be not to attempt to prevent all discriminations of this type. If customs unions are properly organized they can be useful in promoting a diversification of industries in certain areas. But they and preferential tariff arrangements should be subjected to scrutiny by the Trade Authority, which should have power to recommend to the states belonging to the general organization whether or not they should waive their rights under most-favored-nation pledges.


The Trade Authority should facilitate the formation of the agreements on commercial policy and supervise their execution. It should keep itself informed regarding changes occurring in the import and export duties of every country, and also in its "invisible tariff," i.e., customs legislation and administration. It should call attention to any state's failure to live up to its obligations regarding trade policy. It should have certain powers, moreover, beyond investigating and reporting. If the agreements here outlined are to mean anything they must be expressed precisely. But there is danger that, in the desire to give them precision, they may be made too rigid. Circumstances may arise, such as a crop failure or a business depression, in which exact adherence to the terms of the agreement would cause serious hardship to a signatory state. In such cases, the state should apply to the Trade Authority for exemption, and the latter should have power to investigate such applications and, if it deems them justified, to grant the desired relief.

Multilateral agreements of the sort outlined above are legislative in nature. For them to be effective, there must be a judicial body to interpret them, such as the Permanent Court of International Justice, and also an administrative agency having appropriate powers and duties. The Postal Convention has its International Postal Union. The provisions of the I.L.O. agreements are administered by the International Labor Office. These and many other instances which could be cited furnish precedents for an International Trade Authority.

Tariffs have long been regarded as strictly national affairs. Proposals to control them internationally, even to the limited extent here suggested, will be resented on emotional grounds and will be bitterly fought by strongly entrenched industrial and agricultural interests. How to set up an international organ like the Trade Authority described in the foregoing pages, and how to enforce its decisions, are knotty problems that demand much more extensive consideration than is possible in a single article. But we seem justified in assuming that tolerably satisfactory solutions could be worked out if there were a real will to do so, that is to say, if the idea that some form of international control of trade policies is an essential ingredient in a durable peace had the whole-hearted support of the leading trading nations. The influence which the United States will exercise in all postwar economic developments makes it particularly important to inquire what its attitude may be.


The United States will have to choose among three broad alternatives. It may retain its traditional nationalist attitude, modified more or less by the bargaining processes of the Hull program. Or it may enter one or more regional tariff arrangements. Or it may join with many other nations, irrespective of their geographical location, in a global policy.

The continuance of a purely national tariff policy does not imply necessarily that our import duties will be raised after the war. Pressure in this direction will undoubtedly be exercised by both industrial and agricultural interests; some of them are already laying their campaign plans. But if by adopting wise anti-depression measures the party in power is able to provide full employment and to sustain the domestic price level, it might be able to resist the pressure groups and even, by concluding additional trade agreements, move in a direction contrary to their demands.

It should be recognized, however, that after the war the Hull program will in certain respects be inadequate. It lacks the flexibility which will make American trade policy effective in the critical months, possibly years, following the defeat of the Axis Powers. The past eight years have shown that the tariff bargaining process is too cumbersome, too cluttered with diplomatic and legal formalities, to be adaptable to emergency conditions. Recently, under war pressures, agreements have been carried through expeditiously with a few South American countries, but under normal conditions the time between announcement of the intention to negotiate (often preceded by extended diplomatic conversations) and the signature of an agreement has usually been between 10 and 16 months.[iii] Furthermore, the Act of 1934 prescribed that no tariff duty can be cut by more than 50 percent of the existing rate, which seriously restricts the bargaining power of our negotiators.

The Hull program also lacks flexibility in another sense. It works fairly well when the bargaining parties are nations like Canada and the United States, where foreign trade is carried on by private individuals for their own profit. But it provides no satisfactory arrangement by which the United States may conduct and expand its trade with states like Russia and the new China, whose economic institutions and policies differ substantially from our own.[iv] In fact, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that a premise of the program is that free enterprise is, or eventually will be, universal. But such an assumption now appears of doubtful validity. It is not the purpose of this war, nor does it seem likely to be its result, to convert all states to a uniform type of economic organization. If our trade policy is to be realistic, then, it must recognize the coëxistence and coparticipation in world trade of both "liberal" and "planned" economies. In trade between economies of such different types we may find that ad hoc agreements, periodically revised, specifying the quantities or values of goods which are to be purchased or exchanged within specified time limits, will prove the only feasible policy. When such agreements are used to regulate trade between states having liberal economies, they must be regarded as regrettable departures from the principle of equality of treatment; but when they are used between states whose foreign trade is directly controlled, or between a liberal and a planned economy, they may be the only means of approximating equality of treatment.

Our national commercial policy might be modified after the war by our entry into regional agreements, or other agreements of a special character. This is the second of the three choices before us. In association with some or all of the Latin American republics, or, alternatively, with the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, we might form either a customs union or a preferential tariff arrangement on the general lines of the Ottawa Agreements.

Some such regional solution of our postwar trade problems has, it must be admitted, attractive features. It seems to provide a comfortable halfway house in the perilous wilderness that lies between the familiar, but now untenable, nationalism of the past and the Promised Land of a comprehensive world order. Passing over the practical difficulties, let us assume that the other American republics, or alternatively, the British Commonwealths would be willing to join us in the proposed association. Let us assume, also, that the necessary transitional adjustments (perhaps the temporary or permanent shrinkage of cotton production in the United States, or the discontinuance of automobile production in Canada) could be accomplished without excessive hardships. It still is not clear that we can rely on regional arrangements to accomplish the postwar purposes which the United States and the United Nations have announced. Dropping trade barriers within a region of preferential tariffs or of free trade would promote trade among the member states; but whether a net increase in the total volume of world trade would follow would depend largely on the policy adopted toward non-member states.

The foregoing should not be interpreted as a general condemnation of all attempts to lower tariff barriers on a regional basis. Areas which are now backward industrially might by forming a regional agreement (like that recently made between Brazil and Argentina) promote useful diversification. Certainly, industrially advanced nations ought not, a priori, to take the responsibility of preventing such arrangements by insisting upon their most-favored-nation rights. Each case must be decided on its merits; and here, obviously, a competent body such as the proposed International Trade Authority could perform an important function of analysis and recommendation.

Finally, it should be observed that the regional approach to postwar reconstruction has a defect in common with the Hull program in that it side-steps a major problem of the transitional period after the war, the problem of effectively directing trade into channels best suited to the needs of relief and reconstruction.

Two years ago, in an article in these pages,[v] the author collaborated with Professor Arthur Upgren in suggesting an economic union of the United States, Latin America and the British Empire. At that time, some kind of regional tariff arrangement seemed a necessary stepping-stone to the restoration of liberal trading policies on a worldwide basis. But the events of the past two years have changed the picture. We no longer are nonbelligerents, spectators at a struggle between Germany and the British Commonwealth; we are one of the principal belligerents in a world war. To win this war we have joined with the United Kingdom, Russia, China and 24 other countries in forming the United Nations. This constellation may be a new world organization in embryo. A third line of action for American commercial policy thus becomes worthy of consideration, namely, that the United States should join with the other leaders of the United Nations in the international supervision of trade policies through an organization such as the International Trade Authority here proposed.

In other fields of economic activity the need for international control has already been recognized. Wayne C. Taylor, in his recent address to the National Foreign Trade Convention in Boston,[vi] suggested that an international authority might be set up after the war to administer the shipping facilities of the world. In a recent issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS,[vii] Professor Alvin Hansen suggested an international corporation for capital investment, "a sort of international R.F.C." Other suggestions have been made to establish international agencies for the control of monetary and currency policies, and for dealing with agricultural surpluses. The activities of each of these agencies cuts across the field of international trade; its success or failure will depend in large measure on the commercial policies adopted by the leading trading countries. This points to the need for another agency, an International Trade Authority, to supplement and reënforce policies adopted in the fields of shipping, finance, and capital investment.

Clearly none of the projected international agencies can succeed without the active participation of the United States. Equally clearly, the political and economic interests of the United States demand that it participate. For its interests are global: they cannot be confined within the limits of any region, or to a special group of countries. Its trade relations, for example, are multilateral. They do not consist in evenly balanced bilateral exchanges with a series of countries. Huge surpluses of exports are characteristic of our peacetime trade with certain countries; great excesses of imports arise from our trade with others. These can be liquidated only through triangular or multiangular exchanges. Our trade policy, then, is not concerned only with our exchanges with each one of the various countries of the world; it is vitally concerned also to keep open the channels of their trade with each other.

The people of the United States are not fighting this war simply for a military victory. They want to accomplish something else; they want a durable peace, and they are beginning to understand that they cannot obtain it unless they are willing to take part in setting up and operating new international institutions. In planning such institutions, we meet a particular challenge to our ingenuity and our political abilities in the need for an International Trade Authority.

[i] Congress still seems not to be impressed with the urgency of this matter. A bill embodying the Administration's desires was tabled on November 18 by the Ways and Means Committee of the House, which has named a subcommittee to frame a substitute bill.

[ii] Exceptions should, of course, be made for frontier trade.

[iii] A tabulation of 26 agreements shows that 13 took 12 months or longer; seven took from six to 11 months, and only six took less than six months.

[iv] Trade with the U.S.S.R. is conducted under the terms of a special agreement, renewed periodically, which specifies the minimum value of United States goods which that country will purchase each year. In return, the United States grants most-favored-nation treatment.

[v] "A Trade Policy for National Defense," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1941, p. 282.

[vi]New York Times, October 8, 1942.

[vii] "Postwar Economic Tasks," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1942, p. 473.

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  • PERCY W. BIDWELL, Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; author of "The Tariff Policy of the United States" and other works, and co-author of "Mobilizing Civilian America"
  • More By Percy W. Bidwell