Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Can Free Trade End War?

(Part 1 of a 3-part series)

I confess: Sometimes, I look at my career as an international trade lawyer and scholar and wonder if it has gone awry. Family legend has it that at nine years old I told my dad I wanted to be “the international Thurgood Marshall.” It is a testament to my dad that his only response was “great!” As an immigrant from Haiti who still spoke “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s name in a whisper in our New York city apartment, my father’s experience of law, lawyers and the legal system was vastly different from my own. But he gave me his blessing. In college and law school, I was something of an “agitator”: I protested the last vestiges of U.S involvement with apartheid South Africa, I worked with Haitians seeking political asylum in Miami, and I joined protest movements of various stripes (I was even a vegetarian for seven long years). At NYU, I crammed in as many international law courses as I could fit alongside a heavy litigation schedule in the immigration rights clinic. I felt I was on the path to doing for international law what Thurgood Marshall had done for American justice (oh the arrogance of youth!)
And then someone sent in the decoy—that traitor of a horse the cowboys deploy to roundup the Wild Ones. Suddenly, everyone around me was talking about getting a job at a major law firm. “Stamping your ticket” was now de rigueur if one hoped to become a successful lawyer. Soon enough, I found myself trudging to my cog-in-the-wheel job at a major law firm where I met my first love: International Trade law. I don’t mean to suggest I actually enjoyed sifting through boxes of receipts to validate dumping margins, but the Big Ideas of international trade I found very appealing indeed. Free trade brought prosperity, abundance, peace and security to all nations—at least in principle.
The more I learned, the more I became convinced I had discovered the Theory of Everything: Free Trade = Peace + Prosperity – (Ignorance + Zenophobia). Or even more succinctly: Free Trade = Peace.
Yes, I really was that idealistic. I probably still am to some extent (although I would now add that free trade must be fair). But this idealism is put to the test when I consider the way war can unravel in a heartbeat the prosperity that trade takes generations to produce. When I reflect on the recent fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the slow-burn in the Congo and the Ivory Coast, and the continuing instability in Haiti, I wonder if I have gotten it all wrong. Perhaps the path I forged in college and law school—that of direct representation and a focus on individual rights—is the surest path to a more just world order?
I came across an interesting article the other day, which forced me to consider the question. In Trade and Security: Empiricism, Change, Emotion & Relevancy, law prof Colin Picker makes the point that “after generations of study and the employment of sophisticated economic, statistical and scientific techniques, we are unable to say whether the optimistic liberal trade views [that free trade leads to peace] are supported by the evidence.” Picker argues the nature of modern conflicts—the fact that they are primarily internal ethnic/tribal disputes that call up a complex mélange of emotions and passions—suggests that “it is best if international trade is not explicitly harnessed to the goal of armed conflict reduction.
The premise contradicts basic free trade dogma. Perhaps Thomas Friedman put it best when he said “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other” (sadly, that is no longer true). Trade is meant to be a pacifying force just as much as it is meant to create prosperity. Suggesting otherwise, to my mind, calls into question the very relevance of trade policy in handling twenty-first century problems.
The question I am left to ponder is this: Can free trade end war? I want to delve more deeply into that question in my next post.

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