U.S. Trade Policy
The Emergence of Regional and Bilateral Alternatives to Multilateralism

Papers and StudiesHistorical Overview of Postwar U.S. Trade Policy

From the 1940’s, when the postwar multilateral trading system was founded around the truncated provisions of the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), to the mid-1980s, the United States steadfastly opposed derogations from most favored national status (MFN) obligations and, therefore, most regional trading arrangements (Cold War exigencies account for the exception regarding the formation and growth of the European Community). Essentially, the U.S. adhered to a two-track trade policy: (1) multilateralism, embodied in its membership in the GATT and in its leadership in eight rounds of trade-liberalizing GATT negotiations; and (2) unilateralism-bilateralism, dictated by the substantive reality that GATT did not cover key trading sectors, and thus powerful domestic interests demanded that U.S. political leaders pursue independent bilateral negotiations--particularly with Japan and the EC--to achieve trade policy goals beyond multilateral disciplines. Unilateralism was linked directly to bilateral negotiations as the U.S. also reserved the right to act on its own by enforcing its will should bilateral negotiations fail.

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Claude Barfield is a resident scholar and directory of science and technology policy studies at AEI.

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