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Sustainable trade

Reimagining trade: Can mutual benefit be restored?

Published 27 July 2021

Economic coercion and protectionism may be increasingly prominent in global trade for its delivery of short-term gains. Trust and confidence between nations may have been damaged beyond repair. But we must reflect carefully before resigning ourselves to a more Hobbesian trade world.

It is not an exaggeration to say that trade has transformed the world, especially during the latter half of the 20th century. While trade has not been an idyllic panacea, no other single factor has driven greater gains in global economic development and rising standards of living.

Today, the trade landscape looks like a battlefield. Protectionist policies are on the rise. Global trade governance has been derailed. The two largest economies in the world remain locked in the most significant trade war in 90 years, while smaller trade spats are breaking out across the globe. We are approaching an inflection point. If we hope to continue to derive transformative benefit in the decades to come, trade relationships will need to be reimagined.

In this essay, Hinrich Foundation Senior Research Fellow Stephen Olson notes that hardheaded pragmatism should point us towards a greater emphasis on broad based mutual benefit in our trade relationships. It would be counterproductive to have idealized expectations about a “Kumbaya moment”, but resorting to protectionism and the 'blame game' will do little to secure a sustainable future for workers, consumers, companies, and economies.

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Stephen Olson

From 2014 to January 2024, Mr. Olson was a Senior Research Fellow of the Hinrich Foundation. Mr. Olson began his career in Washington DC as an international trade negotiator and served on the US negotiating team for the NAFTA negotiations.

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