British Prime Minister Theresa May with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, January 27, 2017.
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comparison / power

Protectionism 100 Years ago Helped Ignite a World War. Could it Happen Again?

Abandoning free trade doesn't just hurt the economy. It threatens peace and stability across the globe.
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The United States, however, topped the list of protectionist states. The political and ideological power of protectionism in late 19th-century America — the Gilded Age — was palpable. The Republican Party, formed as the party of antislavery in the 1850s, fast remade itself as the party of protectionism following the Civil War.

Hoping to protect U.S. industries from the unpredictable gales of unfettered global market competition, the ultranationalist party tacked its sails to the “American System” of high tariffs and government subsidization of domestic industries.

More than a century before Trump’s “America first” policy, slogans like “America for Americans — No Free Trade” filled Republican Party convention halls.

For paranoid Gilded Age Republican protectionists, free trade became tantamount to conspiracy.

The GOP’s lead spokesman on the tariff at that time was a short, cigar-smoking politician from Ohio named William McKinley. “The Napoleon of Protection,” as he was dubbed, had well earned the moniker by the time he entered the White House in 1897.

Like the Trump administration today, McKinley viewed free trade with suspicion, although the target of McKinley’s free-trade conspiracy theories was the industrial powerhouse of Britain instead of Trump’s China. McKinley, throughout his long Republican career, charged his pro-free-trade political opponents with being part of a vast British conspiracy that sought to sap America’s high tariff walls and undermine infant American industries. The conspiracy, he argued, included “free trade leaders in the United States and the statesmen and ruling classes of Great Britain”; American free traders were pawns, agents of “the manufacturers and the traders of England, who want the American market.”

Countering Republican conspiracy theorists, late 19th-century U.S. free traders argued that trade liberalization fostered international stability and peace, and that, by contrast, the era’s global uptick in imperialism and war only illustrated how protectionism fomented geopolitical rivalry and conflict.
Trump, tapping into long-standing Republican fears of free trade, is knowingly returning the GOP to its paranoid protectionist roots — a move against globalization that is also building up populist momentum in Britain and France.

The protectionist resurgence among the leaders of post-1945 globalization — be it Brexit, patriotisme économique, or “America first” — holds dire consequences for the liberal economic order by pitting nations against one another and breeding suspicion, distrust and conspiratorial thinking. The ultranationalism, militarism and tariff wars of the late 19th century spilled over into the 20th century, and ended in world war — suggesting a return to the protectionism of old could damage far more than national economies.
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