Public Responses to Foreign Protectionism: Evidence From the US-China Trade War



David A. Steinberg & Yeling Tan | The Review of International Organizations

In recent years, several of the world’s largest economies have adopted more protectionist trade policies. Nowhere is this trend more visible than in the world’s most important trading relationship—that between the US and China. US trade policy has grown substantially more protectionist since 2018, leading to a “trade war” with China and international frictions with other major economies. This protectionist turn appears likely to endure: not only has the Biden administration continued to levy tariffs on China, it has considered imposing new restrictions. Nor has US protectionism been limited to China. For example, one of the Biden administration’s first major trade policy actions involved an increase in tariffs on imports from the United Arab Emirates. Many observers worry that US protectionism could have broader repercussions—inflaming nationalist sentiments, undermining popular support for free trade in target countries, and ultimately weakening the foundations of the international trading system. To this end, this paper examines how foreign protectionism affects public support for trade in target countries.

We argue that public opinion on free trade is affected not just by domestic factors such as education and gender, but also by the actions of foreign countries. Our central hypothesis is that protectionism from abroad reduces public enthusiasm for free trade in target countries. We argue that this decline in public support for trade reflects individuals’ preferences for two distinct types of reciprocity. Existing research on public attitudes towards international politics highlights the importance of direct reciprocity, which refers to declining support for cooperation with countries that do not cooperate. Along these lines, we expect the public to want to retaliate by raising tariffs on imports from the protectionist country.


Public responses to foreign protectionism Evidence from the US-China trade war

To read the full report, click here.