Courtesy Reuters

Trading American Interests

In the aftermath of the Cold War the United States has the opportunity to stop trading access to the American market for foreign policy favors. Import concessions should generate reciprocal export opportunities for American goods and services in foreign markets, not votes in the United Nations or goodwill in diplomatic negotiations.

For 45 years a succession of presidents, beginning with Harry Truman, have consciously subordinated domestic economic interests to foreign policy objectives. To strengthen free world economies and help contain Soviet expansionism the executive branch has rolled back tariffs and removed trade restrictions, opening the giant American market to the world’s manufacturers.

This strategy produced some impressive foreign policy victories, but also much domestic dislocation. Trade liberalization accelerated recovery from World War II in Europe and east Asia, and ignited export?led growth in many developing countries. It helped revive international capital flows and hasten the globalization of production. Consumers found that the market system could produce and distribute goods at affordable prices, while state planning could not. The success of free markets therefore exposed the failures of the Soviet empire and contributed to its collapse.

Freer trade has its costs. The record suggests that for diplomatic and national security reasons the U.S. government sacrificed thousands of domestic jobs to create employment and prosperity elsewhere in the noncommunist world. Bowing to external pressures and foreign policy concerns, presidents from Truman to Reagan refused to grant import relief to trade?sensitive industries in the interests of winning the Cold War. In doing so they may have compromised America’s future competitiveness and alienated public support for international cooperation in the post?Cold War world.


Introduced in 1934 as a temporary recovery measure to restore the American living standard, the reciprocal trade program acquired new significance after World War II—becoming a powerful tool for reshaping international economic relations. From 1947 to 1972 the United States agreed to reduce its tariffs from an average 32.2 percent ad valorem on dutiable goods to a negligible 8.5 percent.

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