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33.4 Regulating Trade

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand why nation-states have sometimes limited imports but not exports.
  2. Explain why nation-states have given up some of their sovereignty by lowering tariffs in agreement with other nation-states.

Before globalization, nation-states traded with one another, but they did so with a significant degree of protectiveness. For example, one nation might have imposed very high tariffs (taxes on imports from other countries) while not taxing exports in order to encourage a favorable “balance of trade.” The balance of trade is an important statistic for many countries; for many years, the US balance of trade has been negative because it imports far more than it exports (even though the United States, with its very large farms, is the world’s largest exporter of agricultural products). This section will explore import and export controls in the context of the global agreement to reduce import controls in the name of free trade.

Export Controls

The United States maintains restrictions on certain kinds of products being sold to other nations and to individuals and firms within those nations. For example, the Export Administration Act of 1985 has controlled certain exports that would endanger national security, drain scarce materials from the US economy, or harm foreign policy goals. The US secretary of commerce has a list of controlled commodities that meet any of these criteria.

More specifically, the Arms Export Control Act permits the president to create a list of controlled goods related to military weaponry, and no person or firm subject to US law can export any listed item without a license. When the United States has imposed sanctions, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) has often been the legislative basis; and the act gives the president considerable power to impose limitations on trade. For example, in 1979, President Carter, using IEEPA, was able to impose sanctions on Iran after the diplomatic hostage crisis. The United States still imposes travel restrictions and other sanctions on Cuba, North Korea, and many other countries.

Import Controls and Free Trade

Nation-states naturally wish to protect their domestic industries. Historically, protectionism has come in the form of import taxes, or tariffs, also called duties. The tariff is simply a tax imposed on goods when they enter a country. Tariffs change often and vary from one nation-state to another. Efforts to implement free trade began with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and are now enforced through the World Trade Organization (WTO); the GATT and the WTO have sought, through successive rounds of trade talks, to decrease the number and extent of tariffs that would hinder the free flow of commerce from one nation-state to another. The theory of comparative advantage espoused by David Ricardo is the basis for the gradual but steady of tariffs, from early rounds of talks under the GATT to the Uruguay Round, which established the WTO.

The GATT was a huge multilateral treaty negotiated after World War II and signed in 1947. After various “rounds” of re-negotiation, the Uruguay Round ended in 1994 with the United States and 125 other nation-states signing the treaty that established the WTO. In 1948, the worldwide average tariff on industrial goods was around 40 percent. That number is now more like 4 percent as globalization has taken root. Free-trade proponents claim that globalization has increased general well-being, while opponents claim that free trade has brought outsourcing, industrial decline, and the hollowing-out of the US manufacturing base. The same kinds of criticisms have been directed at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The Uruguay Round was to be succeeded by the Doha Round. But that round has not concluded because developing countries have not been satisfied with the proposed reductions in agricultural tariffs imposed by the more developed economies; developing countries have been resistant to further agreements unless and until the United States and the European Union lower their agricultural tariffs.

There are a number of regional trade agreements other than NAFTA. The European Union, formerly the Common Market, provides for the free movement of member nations’ citizens throughout the European Union (EU) and sets union-wide standards for tariffs, subsidies, transportation, human rights, and many other issues. Another regional trade agreement is Mercosur—an organization formed by Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay to improve trade and commerce among those South American nations. Almost all trade barriers between the four nations have been eliminated, and the organization has also established a broad social agenda focusing on education, culture, the environment, and consumer protection.

Key Takeaway

Historically, import controls were more common than export controls; nation-states would typically impose tariffs (taxes) on goods imported from other nation-states. Some nation-states, such as the United States, nevertheless maintain certain export controls for national security and military purposes. Most nation-states have voluntarily given up some of their sovereignty in order to gain the advantages of bilateral and multilateral trade and investment treaties. The most prominent example of a multilateral trade treaty is the GATT, now administered by the WTO. There are also regional free-trade agreements, such as NAFTA and Mercosur, that provide additional relaxation of tariffs beyond those agreed to under the WTO.


  1. Look at various sources and describe, in one hundred or fewer words, why the Doha Round of WTO negotiations has not been concluded.
  2. What is the most recent bilateral investment treaty (BIT) that has been concluded between the United States and another nation-state? What are its key provisions? Which US businesses are most helped by this treaty?