Deglobalisation Series | Backtracking from globalisation by Evan Hillebrand

While globalisation still enjoys strong support in the Global South, major economies in the Global North now seem less enthusiastic about its purported benefits. This article explores how the United States through its previous policies came to backtrack from globalisation, showing that it is an altogether unsurprising development.

From the perspective of the United States (US), embodied in US president Donald Trump’s recent discourses, the liberal international trading system faces at least three major economic and socio-political challenges going forward: (1) income redistribution, (2) the rise of Asia and a potential shift in comparative advantage, and (3) the rise of China and the national security argument. Given the growing domestic unease with free trade and the fact that these exacerbating issues are worsening, I suggest that US policies will become less supportive of globalisation.

US withdrawal: surprising or expected?

In our 2011 article, “Backtracking from Globalization” (1), my coauthors and I discussed the declining support for globalisation in the United States and elsewhere. Since then the trend has gotten worse.

But why shouldn’t it? The US, after all, has only had a liberal trade policy for 60 or so years. In its early years, US policy focused on high tariffs, large subsidies to key industries, and infrastructure investment designed to create an industrial economy for the sake of military and economic power (sounds not too dissimilar to China today). The US moved to a freer-trade stance when the US was economically dominant and an expansion of global markets seemed as if it would be economically beneficial.

The US free trade strategy was also based on political theories and grand strategy. After World War II, trade expansion was seen as a good way to bolster Europe economically, tie it to the West, and strengthen the West against the Soviet Union. The US spurred the creation of the GATT/WTO in an effort to bring all countries into a democratic rule-based system under the assumption that trade would help all countries prosper under US leadership. Since 1980 or so, the US has tried to lure China into the world market system to foster interdependence and peace. In many respects, that policy can be considered a great success—ushering in a vast improvement in the material standard of living almost everywhere and many decades of great-power peace. China also did turn away from its Maoist phase of development.

 Ebbing enthusiasm for globalisation

Support for globalisation, however, is clearly headed in a negative direction and the ebbing of enthusiasm has been particularly dramatic in the United States. Recent polling data from the Pew Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations (2) show that there is still support for international trade, but a majority worry that trade generates labor market costs in terms of job destruction and lower wages. This worry helped elect the current US president and his administration talks more about fair trade than free trade: ‘Nothing about the theory of comparative advantage would lend itself to a defense of a status quo that imposes higher barriers to exports on American producers than on foreign producers’ (Economic Report of the President 2018: 219) (3).

It is important to understand that it is not ignorance that has led US policy in this direction.

Many voters were lured to Donald Trump’s “America First” pitch because of a perception that wages were stagnant and communities were hurt because of globalisation. In reality it is more than just a hunch: income distribution in America has worsened and academic research by Paul Krugman (4) and others attributes some of that worsening to trade, although the magnitude of trade’s contribution is (and always will be) in dispute.

Support for globalisation has to some extent rested on the theory of comparative advantage, but that theory has never been the “slam dunk” argument that enthusiasts have made it out to be. It depends on so many assumptions that do not fit the current world economy, so the theory should only be relied upon as a general principle, not the decider of every policy dispute. Paul Samuelson (5) claimed in 1972 that the aggregate gains from trade are not necessarily positive. He expanded on this idea in his (2004) paper, ‘Where Ricardo and Mill Rebut and Confirm Arguments of Mainstream Economists Supporting Globalization’, saying that growth in the rest of the world can hurt a country if it takes place in sectors that compete with its native exports—where it has comparative advantage.

The rise of China

Relative, and even absolute, per capita GDP can fall in such a situation (6). Whether China’s rise can actually diminish the US is not clear, but the current Chinese government continues to employ active trade policies to push its industries up the value chain, aiming explicitly at sectors that have been the mainstay of US industrial pre-eminence. Samuelson says that ‘economic history is replete with examples like this, first insidiously, and later decisively’, pointing explicitly to British manufacturing being overtaken by US industry after 1850.

In addition to the economic threat posed by China, the US government has long worried about the security threat posed by China’s rise. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission is an organisation chartered and funded by the US Congress and dedicated to the proposition that China poses a multifaceted threat to the US. It yearly issues a massive report that cites declines in the US defense industrial base, insecurity of defense supply lines, financial threats, Chinese ownership of critical US facilities, cyber threats, and other problems—all related to China. In the most recent report (7), it lists 26 recommendations for congressional action, many of which would amount to new trade restrictions.

Trade policies, while often rooted in interest groups scrambling for distributional gains, are also related to national economic and security concerns. In the past, pragmatic national interests have pushed trade policy in varying directions. There is no reason now to believe that the US is giving up on international trade, but there is every reason to believe that for a variety of national interests it will be much less enthusiastic about globalisation in the future.

(1) Hillebrand, E.E., J. Lewer and J. Zagardo (2011) ‘Backtracking from Globalization’, Global Economy Journal 10(4).
(2) Poushter (2016) American Public, Foreign Policy Experts Sharply Disagree over Involvement in Global Economy. Pew Research Center,
(3) Council of Economic Advisors (2018) Economic Report of the President. Washington, D.C.
(4) Krugman, P.R. (2008) ‘Trade and Wages, Reconsidered’, Proceedings of the Brookings Panel on Economic Activity. Spring conference. Available at: (
(5) Samuelson, P.A. (1972) ‘Heretical Doubts About the International Mechanism’, Journal of International Economics, 2(4): 443-453.
(6) Samuelson, P. (2004) ‘Where Ricardo and Mill Rebut and Confirm Arguments of Mainstream Economists Supporting Globalization’, Journal of Economic Perspectives 18(3): 135-146.
(7) U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (2017) 2017 Report to Congress. Washington, D.C. Available at

Also see: Deglobalisation Series | Is anti-globalisation only a preoccupation in the Global North? by Rory Horner, Seth Schindler, Daniel Haberly and Yuko Aoyama

UntitledAbout the author:

Professor Evan Hillebrand taught international economics at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His most recent book is Energy, Economic Growth, and Geopolitical Futures (MIT Press, 2015).



One comment

  1. Great stuff…a very clear and cogent explanation of trade policies, and why tariffs do not exist in a vacuum. This nicely integrates all considerations any trade policy, from economic to political to national security issues.


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