Densely detailed study of trade agreements across the span of American history, written by a former U.S. trade representative.
As Johnson (Director Emeritus, Dean Rusk Center for International Law and Policy, Univ. of Georgia) wryly notes at the beginning, Donald Trump is not the first leader in world history to dream of a “big, beautiful wall.” Long before Adam Smith limned the workings of the world economy, Chinese emperors decided to wall themselves off, too, and “to withdraw from engagement with the world and its markets.” Isolationism and protectionism have long been themes in America’s engagement with the world’s markets, from both left and right, with advocacy of open-door free markets frequently coming from the Republican side of the aisle—or at least of tariff reduction. At the dawn of the Gilded Age, as now, “the public views on the increasingly unpopular protectionist tariffs had no effect on the Senate” even as practical-minded presidents maneuvered around the legislature to strike favorable agreements with favored trading partners. A long-standing argument, Johnson notes, is whether tariffs and other protectionist measures have any actual result in regard to better wages and living standards for American workers, though politicians such as Cordell Hull grimly noted that they did seem to have the effect of transferring wealth “from one class to another without affecting the Nation’s total.” Guess which class benefits. The author’s account of the formulation of the Bretton Woods and subsequent financial and trade agreements is exhaustive—and a touch exhausting, for it seems that no detail could possibly elude this overstuffed narrative. But for students of international trade, macroeconomics, and governance—another theme is the struggle among various branches of government to regulates foreign trade—this will be a useful reference.
Timely, given the resurgence of a protectionist, closed-door trade policy and all its likely negative consequences—but not a book for the faint of heart or the short of attention span.