Building alternatives to free trade must become an essential component of a more progressive US foreign policy.
Opposition to “free” trade is clearly growing — both the progressive and the corporate elements of the Democratic Party are now critical of agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Less clear are the alternatives to free trade that might emerge. As progressives continue to build power inside and outside of the Democratic Party, we must clarify our understanding of the international political economy, and imagine and begin to build real alternatives to free trade. Building these alternatives must become an essential component of a more progressive US foreign policy.
The conventional wisdom says that if you oppose free trade, you must support protectionism or economic nationalism. This is misleading. There is no such thing as “free” trade. People create all of the systems that govern our political economy. These systems inevitably favor certain human activities over others, and we can design them to act any way that we want. The important question is: For whom are trade policies “free”? Put another way: Who do trade policies favor?
Debunking “Free” Trade
“Free” trade is free only for capital owners: the plutocratic few who own and control multinational corporations. When countries enter into free trade agreements, the governments of both countries effectively agree that their laws will not favor businesses from their country over businesses from any other countries. The main way that free trade does this is by attempting to reduce all tariffs to as close to 0 percent as possible, to eliminate import quotas that countries can use to limit the amount and types of goods imported from specified countries, and to discourage countries from more directly subsidizing their own businesses.
Far from promoting freedom for everyone, “free” trade empowers multinationals from the global North to control the world political economy in two important ways. First, free trade facilitates global North multinationals to maintain the unequal trade they established with the global South during colonialism. This increases inequalities of power and wealth between global North and global South. Second, free trade empowers global North multinationals to plan the world economy alongside global South multinationals, the junior partners of the global North multinationals, and to pit working-class people in the global North and global South against one another.
Thus, free trade is the modern form that imperialism takes. Throughout US history, the US government has used military force to expand free trade throughout the world. For more than a century, US-backed military coups and US-backed military dictatorships have led to partnerships between the US government, US multinationals and local elites across the globe that are built around creating trade that concentrates wealth for multinationals. This remains a core source of violence in the world with many implications. Today, for instance, Central American refugees at the southern US border are criminalized for fleeing a history of US military coups and intervention in Central America and the neoliberal trade policies that US multinationals and local elites created in their aftermath…