The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protectionism 100 years ago helped ignite a world war. Could it happen again?

Abandoning free trade doesn't just hurt the economy. It threatens peace and stability across the globe.

The heartbreaking effects of abandoning free trade. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)

The liberal economic order that defined the post-1945 era is disintegrating.

Globalization’s foremost champions have become the first to signal the retreat in the wake of the Great Recession. Economic nationalism, historically popular in times of economic crisis, is once again on the rise in Britain, France and the United States. We are witnessing a return to the antagonistic protectionist politics that defined a bygone era that ended with World War I — suggesting that today’s protectionist revival threatens not just the global economy, but world stability and peace.

Leading liberal democracies have turned their back on free trade. Britain, through Brexit, announced its retreat from European market integration. Before the parliamentary elections, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a new Industrial Strategy, which includes state subsidization of select industries and stringent immigration restrictions on foreign workers at “every sector and every skill level.” Despite her post-election collapse in support, May continues to move forward with leaving the European Union single market thanks to an unholy alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s far-right supporters of Brexit.

Likewise, in the recent French presidential elections the vast majority of candidates ran on a platform of “patriotisme économique.” Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right National Front party, made a strong bid for the French presidency through a campaign that combined a condemnation of globalization alongside the promise of extreme economic nationalist legislation and an end to immigration into France. President-elect Emmanuel Macron is now pushing hard for a “Buy European Act” to placate French anti-globalization forces.

But nowhere has the anti-trade turn been more marked than in the United States, where “globalism” has become a dirty word. “Free trade’s no good” for the United States, as Donald Trump put it in 2015. President Trump has threatened to shred the North American Free Trade Agreement and to impose protective tariffs on imports from Mexico and China, two of America’s largest trading partners.

In January, a paranoid Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations — a massive free-trade deal that included a dozen countries in the Asia Pacific — because he believed that the Chinese were secretly plotting to use it to take advantage of the U.S. market.

And in April, Trump signed a “Buy American, Hire American” executive order that forces U.S. government agencies to purchase domestically made products and limits the immigration of foreign skilled workers.

This widespread fear of the global marketplace and the looming threat of tit-for-tat trade wars herald a return to late 19th-century geopolitics. Then, too, many of the leading economies of the day took shelter behind high tariff walls to halt the forces of globalization. Following the onset of an economic depression in the early 1870s, one industrializing country after another turned against trade liberalization. Trade wars, colonialism and closed markets became the name of the geopolitical game.

In stark contrast to today, back then only Britain stuck to free trade with “all the world.” Yet even free-trade bastion Britain was not without its domestic economic nationalist enemies.

In response to the late 19th-century turn to protectionism among Britain’s competitors, formidable right-wing British organizations like the Fair Trade League and the Tariff Reform League emerged to champion retaliatory tariffs and an imperial trade preference system. And the political leader of the turn-of-the-century British imperial protectionist movement was none other than Joseph Chamberlain, Theresa May’s “political hero.”

“Fortress France” turned away from free trade in 1892, the culmination of a decade-long “protectionist backlash” to the ongoing economic depression. The protectionist measure exacerbated the Franco-Italian trade war, which Italy had started with its turn to protectionism in the mid-1880s. Trade between these countries fell considerably, pushing Italy ever closer to Austria-Hungary and Germany — the Triple Alliance — in the years before the First World War.

The United States, however, topped the list of protectionist states. The political and ideological power of protectionism in late 19th-century America — the Gilded Age — was palpable. The Republican Party, formed as the party of antislavery in the 1850s, fast remade itself as the party of protectionism following the Civil War.

Hoping to protect U.S. industries from the unpredictable gales of unfettered global market competition, the ultranationalist party tacked its sails to the “American System” of high tariffs and government subsidization of domestic industries.

More than a century before Trump’s “America first” policy, slogans like “America for Americans — No Free Trade” filled Republican Party convention halls.

For paranoid Gilded Age Republican protectionists, free trade became tantamount to conspiracy.

The GOP’s lead spokesman on the tariff at that time was a short, cigar-smoking politician from Ohio named William McKinley. “The Napoleon of Protection,” as he was dubbed, had well earned the moniker by the time he entered the White House in 1897.

Like the Trump administration today, McKinley viewed free trade with suspicion, although the target of McKinley’s free-trade conspiracy theories was the industrial powerhouse of Britain instead of Trump’s China. McKinley, throughout his long Republican career, charged his pro-free-trade political opponents with being part of a vast British conspiracy that sought to sap America’s high tariff walls and undermine infant American industries. The conspiracy, he argued, included “free trade leaders in the United States and the statesmen and ruling classes of Great Britain”; American free traders were pawns, agents of “the manufacturers and the traders of England, who want the American market.”

Countering Republican conspiracy theorists, late 19th-century U.S. free traders argued that trade liberalization fostered international stability and peace, and that, by contrast, the era’s global uptick in imperialism and war only illustrated how protectionism fomented geopolitical rivalry and conflict.

Trump, tapping into long-standing Republican fears of free trade, is knowingly returning the GOP to its paranoid protectionist roots — a move against globalization that is also building up populist momentum in Britain and France.

The protectionist resurgence among the leaders of post-1945 globalization — be it Brexit, patriotisme économique, or “America first” — holds dire consequences for the liberal economic order by pitting nations against one another and breeding suspicion, distrust and conspiratorial thinking. The ultranationalism, militarism and tariff wars of the late 19th century spilled over into the 20th century, and ended in world war — suggesting a return to the protectionism of old could damage far more than national economies.