For three quarters of a century, the growth of world trade—which has spread prosperity to much of the planet, including hundreds of millions of people in the developing world—has been underpinned by a simple commandment: Thou shalt not discriminate. In the years after World War II, most nations agreed, for the first time in history, they would treat foreign-made goods the same from almost every country. The United States would, for example, charge the same tariff on a sweater imported from Italy as on one imported from Bangladesh and impose no additional discriminatory regulations. First, this powerful principle allowed many poor countries, such as Bangladesh, to grow by exporting goods. Later, when advances in communications and logistics pushed globalization forward, it allowed companies to spread production around the globe, confident they could make goods in almost any country and export them to any other under identical rules.
But the nondiscrimination principle is now under the most sustained assault it has ever faced. On issues from national security to labor rights to the environment, the world’s largest economies are deciding that nondiscrimination—the bedrock principle of free trade and globalization—must take a back seat to more pressing concerns. The most dramatic abandonment is about to hit: Last week, the European Union unveiled its “Fit for 55” plan to reduce carbon emissions by 55 percent from 1990 levels by the end of this decade and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050—which will require the most sustained economic upheaval since the Industrial Revolution. Central to the EU’s plan is a carbon border tax, under which Europe plans to charge higher tariffs on imports of products made in ways that generate higher emissions than European producers will be permitted to generate for the same goods. The scheme will start by targeting carbon-intensive sectors such as concrete, steel, aluminum, and fertilizer. The U.S. Congress is developing a similar plan to tax carbon-intensive imports as part of the coming budget reconciliation package—although the details are still murky. Other new trade restrictions being imposed or considered on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are based on compliance with labor protections, human rights, and other criteria. For many traded goods, nondiscrimination will become a quaint relic.
Most of these measures are eminently defensible, perhaps even critically necessary, but together, they are leading to an increasingly balkanized global economy—one divided by ideology, social values, and environmental commitments. It will be a less efficient world, one in which companies will need to tailor both investments and production decisions to the values of the countries they wish to sell to. And it will cause more economic conflict. The more these exceptions to the principle of nondiscrimination become entrenched, the easier it becomes to expand those exceptions in the future. As the world moves down this road to closely managed trade, it will need to step cautiously to avoid going too far—and slide back into damaging protectionism.
Nondiscrimination has been the foundation of global trade since the 1947 creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the forerunner of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Article 1.1 of the GATT agreement—the founding constitution for modern trade—directs that “any advantage, favour, privilege or immunity” given to the products of any GATT member “shall be accorded immediately and unconditionally” to the same products from any other member. In those years, of course, much of the world remained outside the system, in particular the Soviet bloc of communist countries; China withdrew in 1950. But for GATT members, which, by the mid-1990s, included most of the world, there were very few exceptions to nondiscrimination. Having learned from the wreckage of the 1930s, when high tariff walls killed off much of the world’s trade and deepened the global depression, the founders of the GATT wanted nondiscrimination to be a largely inviolate principle, a bulwark against the descent back into senseless trade wars.
Unfortunately, the exceptions were still large enough to erode that bedrock commitment. Decades of preferential trade agreements and regional trade zones, from the original European Community to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and beyond, offered favorable treatment for countries inside those arrangements at the expense of nonmembers. Some of these arrangements gave preferences to certain outside countries but not others—for decades, the European Community gave special privileges to France’s former colonies. Mexico’s proximity to the large U.S. consumer market and its special access under NAFTA turned it into a manufacturing powerhouse. The GATT system also permits countries to slap tariffs on goods deemed “unfairly traded” due to government subsidies or predatory pricing. Many global steelmakers especially have faced such duties for decades. Critics argue “unfair” and “predatory” can be squishy criteria, subjectively applied to ward off competition.
Recently, these exceptions have mushroomed. Former U.S. President Donald Trump cited national security—a narrow but permitted GATT exception—to raise taxes on imports of steel and aluminum from some countries. U.S. President Joe Biden is making similar arguments when he insists goods like semiconductors, advanced electric batteries, pharmaceuticals, and critical minerals be produced primarily in the United States. Washington has threatened to block goods deemed environmentally damaging and is currently pursuing a case against Vietnam over its exports of furniture and other wood products made from timber alleged to have been illegally harvested. The European Union, the United States, Britain, and Canada recently imposed trade sanctions targeted at imports from China’s Xinjiang region to protest Beijing’s treatment of the region’s Uyghur Muslims.
Each exception to the nondiscrimination principle has many defenders. No country, quite reasonably, would let its desire for open global trade threaten its national security. Defenders of U.S. trade restrictions on China argue China’s admission to the WTO and the explosion in trade and investment that followed allowed Beijing to grow richer and advance technologically to the point that it poses a significant security threat. A correction was long overdue. Countries, quite understandably, want their economic policies to reflect their values—who would now argue that trade policies should be blind to deforestation in the Amazon or the exploitation of workers? And climate change is now an existential threat to the planet.
The dilemma with each of these measures is the line between legitimate humanitarianism or environmentalism and selfish protectionism can be vanishingly thin. The goals of the EU carbon tax are twofold. First, to encourage other countries to make similarly ambitious climate commitments by threatening the loss of European market access while also equalizing competitive conditions for the EU producers who will pay higher costs for switching to clean energy. The latter goal is dauntingly complex. The EU fears what it calls “carbon leakage,” in which companies would increasingly abandon the EU and shift production abroad to take advantage of looser rules in other countries. The new border tax is intended to “equalise the price of carbon between domestic products and imports.”
The EU has worked hard to try to ensure the new mechanism does not violate WTO rules, but implementation will be messy at best. The means for assessing the carbon content of imports remain unclear, and EU firms are certain to lobby for the highest possible tariffs to protect their competitive edge. In the United States, which has not set a domestic price for carbon, the danger of protectionist discrimination through import tariffs may be even higher. It’s easy to imagine the next step: Targeted countries and companies will complain they’re being treated unfairly, retaliatory tariffs will ensue, and a trade conflict will start that will be difficult to control given the intensity of the societal and political convictions involved.
The same dynamics are in play on other measures, such as labor rights. For decades, U.S. administrations have pushed for tougher labor standards in trade agreements, partly motivated by the desire to see working conditions improve abroad but mostly in response to domestic labor unions that fear being undercut by cheaper foreign workers. The debate over whether lower wages are an integral part of the competitive advantage of developing economies or a pernicious feature of a global race to the bottom remains unresolved. But the advanced economies have become more aggressive in blocking imports over labor rights. The new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, for example, allows for import tariffs to be targeted at a single company’s products if that company is deemed to be wrongly impeding union organizing.
There is much to support in all of this. For too long, trade has been blind to most values other than maximizing wealth and corporate profits. However important the pursuit of profit has been in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of misery and destitution in the developing world, there are other values that matter as much, not least the survival of the planet in the face of climate change.
But as they abandon the old trade order in pursuit of these laudable goals, the EU and the United States, in particular, would be wise to remind themselves repeatedly of another standard enshrined in the WTO: the “less trade-restrictive” principle. Trade negotiators have grappled for decades with the trade implications of national regulations designed to protect human health and safety, from car crash testing standards to drug and food quality regulations. Such regulations are the proper sovereign authority of nations—but they’re also easily abused to keep out foreign competition or applied for political reasons alone, such as Europe’s fears of certain U.S. food exports.
The compromise has been that while countries must be free to take regulatory measures to protect their people, those measures “shall not be more trade-restrictive than necessary to fulfill the legitimate objective.” A series of WTO dispute cases in the 1990s on issues like U.S. air quality standards for gasoline and the U.S. requirement that the fishing industry protect sea turtles provided sensible standards. The panels in those cases found that although such environmental measures were legitimate under trade rules, they must be implemented in an even-handed way that does not disproportionately harm foreign countries, and those countries must be given time to adapt to the new rules. The panels called for negotiated compromises to resolve disagreements wherever possible.
Although weaker, to be sure, a commitment to less trade-restrictive responses and compromises would provide some needed guardrails against sliding down the proverbial slippery slope. As the world enters a new era of closely managed trade, countries must ensure enlightened discrimination does not become a cover for ruinous protectionism.