John Maynard Keynes once reflected that his upbringing led him to presume free trade to be part of the moral law. More than that, he regarded departures from it as being "an imbecility and an outrage".
Yet by 1933, Keynes's world view had altered and his reflections are perhaps resonant for our own generation. "But it does not now seem obvious that a great concentration of national effort on the capture of foreign trade, that the penetration of a country's economic structure by the resources and the influence of foreign capitalists, that a close dependence of our own economic life on the fluctuating economic policies of foreign countries, are safeguards and assurances of international peace."
World War I had shattered Victorian provinciality. The upstarts, Germany and Japan, were stealing British markets. But the greatest upstart of them all, the U.S., was refashioning the free trade catechism to suit its own ends.
The U.S. Secretary of State, John Hay, articulated the Open Door doctrine in 1899. Self-determination and the open market place were the underlying principles of that doctrine.
Francis Thurber, president of the U.S. Export Association, was at Hay’s right hand. "I do not believe in imperialism ... but I do believe in a policy of expansion which will give us the control of some markets which will be a stepping stone to others in a wider zone of influence which such control would enable us to exercise".
Self-determination was fine for excising the European powers from their colonies, but the Americans immediately blotted their copybook in Cuba, Hawaii and the Philippines. Each opening of a marketplace necessitated the shelving of the principle of self-determination.
The battering ram of rhetoric complemented hypocritical practices from the start.
One hundred years later, under the refurbished rhetoric of freedom and democracy, the United States is still at it. On September 19, 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority, overseeing the occupation of Iraq, issued Order No 39 on foreign investment. Conditions were imposed on Iraq regarding the rights of foreign investors. These same conditions have been fiercely resisted by governments and social movements when articulated elsewhere – at World Trade Organisation conferences, but particularly in the blocked Multilateral Agreement on Investment.
The Order met with no resistance because, as a military official noted, "At this point we'd be negotiating with ourselves because we are the government".
Free trade agreements with the U.S. are best understood as driven by U.S. geopolitical interests. They serve the interests of American corporations and the interests of a bipartisan foreign policy. The two interests are inseparable, if not congruent.
Jeffrey Garten, an establishment figure in both political and financial circles, declaimed in a 1997 issue of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs: "Throughout most of American history, commercial interests have played a central role in foreign policy, and vice versa". You couldn't get more straightforward than that, and from the horse's mouth.
The press release from the office of the U.S. Trade Representative for the recently finalised Moroccan FTA mentions only gains for American exporters and leverage over North African governments. The Moroccan FTA is a potential disaster for Moroccan farmers, for the Moroccan services sector and for indigenous health, with the generic medicines industry under threat.
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