Intelligent Unilateralism: An Integral Part of the Response to Growing Geopolitical Rivalry



Simon J. Evenett | Global Trade Alert

Governments are considering their best response to the return of overt geopolitical rivalry and, in some cases, lethal conflicts. While some talk of forming formal or informal blocs of like-minded nations, many governments simply don’t want to pick sides. Even those that do can act unilaterally.

All the talk of imposing new trade and investment restrictions—often in the name of promoting economic security—may have led officials and analysts to overlook one constructive unilateral option. Namely, strengthening the national and regional business environment so as to enable local firms to adapt to adverse circumstances and opportunities that geopolitical events create.

Here the case is made for Intelligent Unilateralism as a (partial) insurance policy against geopolitics.

As geopolitical rivalry intensifies, the siren song of insular, zero-sum thinking gains in prominence. This flies in the face of decades of experience where our standards of living have been enhanced by doing business with foreign buyers and sellers. Exports augment national sales and make jobs more secure. Import competition keeps local firms on their toes—complacent local oligopolists tend to rip off citizens.

No country in the past half a millennium has become an economic superpower by its economy being hermetically sealed to outsiders. Yet, even for economies as large as Japan, there is still the question: How best to react as China and the United States vie for primacy?

For better or for worse, at least since the global financial crisis, the world is in an era of trade policy unilateralism. The painstaking monitoring of commercial policy by the Global Trade Alert has shown this. Sadly, there remains no appetite for path breaking multilateral opening of markets.

At best, as demonstrated by the outcome of the recent WTO Ministerial Conference, sushi-sized reform is what the WTO has on the menu. Likewise, regional trading agreements. Recently, World Bank analysts reported that the number of newly signed regional accords has been falling as this century unfolds. Reciprocal approaches to trade reform are out of favour, alas. Unilateralism is in.

But, like cholesterol, there are two types of unilateralism. Stupid unilateralism involves erecting trade barriers to imports and other ruses that seek to tilt the commercial playing field in favour of local firms. That the idea for these ruses often come from local firms says a lot about their competitiveness. Successful managers think of new ways to create more value for customers, they don’t go running off for help from officials who are largely clueless in the ways of commerce.

What every government can influence constructively is their national business environment. Unlike trade accords, which take years to negotiate, governments can assess and benchmark their national business environment right away.

Fortunately, there are well-regarded measures and rankings of national competitiveness, such as this one produced by the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. Economists can fight like cats and dogs about the best short-term macroeconomic policy, but when it comes to the drivers of long-term economic growth, there is a remarkable degree of agreement. Smart governments should capitalise on this consensus.

To fix ideas consider Switzerland, a country with one of the highest standards of living. Switzerland’s population is too small to support its many successful firms. Switzerland has to export. Therefore, everyone there understands that Switzerland must be competitive no matter what.

If Germany offers huge subsidies to its energy-intensive firms (as it did after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), Switzerland must react differently because the state doesn’t have as deep pockets as Germany. That involves making sure the transport and digital infrastructure is first rate, that the corporate tax and regulatory burden is fit for purpose, and that Switzerland has the best possible access to the markets of the future as well as to the behemoths of today. Of course, such access does not come for free—in turn Switzerland has to be open to imports as well.

For sure, Switzerland’s current favourable business climate didn’t arise overnight—but bear in mind that these days trade talks take forever (a comment made in the spirit of making a fair comparison.) The intensification of geopolitical rivalry in recent years has strengthened the longstanding case for improving the supply side of national economies. Doing so involves taking on vested interests that cling to privileges that deliver either a quiet life or a very lucrative one. For this reason, supply side reform is like getting children to eat enough fresh vegetables—evidently the right thing to do but an uphill battle all the same.

Governments should focus in particular on those aspects of the business climate that enable firms to adapt to new circumstances. Suppose “economic coercion” by a trading power—or worse, conflict that cuts off supply chains—results in some existing sales markets or sourcing locations being blocked. Then national firms need to have the capabilities and the resources to spot alternative options and to act on them. These firms need to know where foreign markets are being liberalised and the regulations they must comply with to take advantage of any opportunities. This calls for granular monitoring of policy developments abroad as well as beefed up capabilities at home.

Critically, executives and officials need to be comfortable with geopolitical chaos and have gamed out in advance how they might respond. When faced with what many deem “economic coercion,” Australia and Lithuania have shown that small and mid-sized economies can effectively pivot, finding new markets for the valuable goods their firms produce. For sure, at the beginning of these episodes, there were reasons to be fearful. But firms and governments there knew they had alternatives (created in part by WTO and regional trade deals) and pursued them with vigour.

With greater geopolitical rivalry the political calculus of supply side reform has changed. Holdouts against reform must now explain why their interests matter more at a time when adaptability is at a premium. Economic security arguments should push the scales against reform holdouts. The media and public will be at a loss to understand why economic coercion abroad results in higher jobs losses on account of some vested local interest frustrating improvements in national exporters’ adaptability and productivity. Whose side are those vested interests on?

Of course, cushioning those interests that lose from reforms is typically smart politics—but letting them frustrate reform provides geopolitical foes with a greater incentive to strike. In open societies where debates over reform can be followed from autocracies, the opposition of vested interests to reform will be noted—and factored in by foreign governments. As local firms and sectors become more adaptable, the downside from economic coercion shrinks. Supply side reform is one way governments better protect their societies against economic coercion.

Intensified geopolitical rivalry is back—it won’t recede anytime soon. This puts a premium on having nimble firms that can adapt to whatever insanity transpires. In turn, this should shift the political calculus—putting the defenders of status quo bottlenecks on the back foot.

Firms and governments have agency—the times call for the courage to use it.

Simon J. Evenett is the Founder of the St. Gallen Endowment for Prosperity Through Trade and an economics professor. He is also Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Council on Trade & Investment.

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