The third one dropped over the weekend (the last one will be unveiled next week, so mark your calendars). It’s the cover story for Reason, and its title is pretty low key: “Will Today’s Global Trade Wars Lead to World War III?”
It would be easy to dismiss this as an example of Betteridge’s law of headlines: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no." So just FYI, here’s the opening paragraph:
You might not know about a minor trade skirmish in the Balkans that started late last year. But you should, because it signals a worrying shift in how national security considerations are altering the fabric of globalization in ways eerily similar to how they did at the dawn of the 20th century. That first shift helped start World War I, so in case you’re wondering, yes, I’m going there: The current rise in protectionism could be the precursor to World War III.
So yeah, I am a barrel of sunshine these days. Sorry.
Read the whole thing to see my argument in full. The article discusses the “capitalist peace” as one brake on international conflict. It should be pointed out, however, that this is not the only logic that caused me to make the comparison between the global political economy of 1909 and today. Even if the capitalist peace has zero causal effect, one can look at the shrinking degree of interdependence in the present day as a leading indicator — or, to use the parlance of social science, an “intervening variable.” In other words, even if populist nationalism or power transitions are the fundamental driver of great power conflict, patterns of economic interdependence function like a canary in a coal mine. If the great power start segmenting their economic exchange, it’s a sign that they see conflict down the road.
As with other essays, there was a delay between when I wrote this and when it appeared. The news in the interim only confirms my fears, however. For example, Bloomberg News’s Fergal O’Brien reports that “trade fell 1.8 percent in the three months through January compared with the previous period. That’s the biggest drop since May 2009. On a year-on-year basis, trade posted its first decline in nine years in the three-month period.” And his Bloomberg colleague Bryce Baschuk reported, “The World Trade Organization slashed its global trade growth projection for 2019 to the lowest level in three years, citing the impact of rising commercial tensions and tariffs. … The reduced forecast for 2019 marks the second consecutive year the WTO has pared back expectations and broadly reflects similar readings from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.” So yeah, there’s that.
As for the ongoing trade wars, there is no indication that they will be resolved anytime soon in a manner that alleviates my concerns. As the New York Times’s Ana Swanson and Keith Bradsher observe, any short-term trade deal between the United States and China is likely to undercut the long-term goal of liberalizing the Chinese economy. Furthermore, for reasons I will discuss later in the week, there is little reason to believe that any short-term deal would actually reduce bilateral economic tensions.
There are no footnotes in magazine journalism, so let me just say here that the article leans a lot on two important international relations articles about whether the capitalist peace and the outbreak of World War I is a disconfirming case: Erik Gartzke and Yonatan Lupu’s “Trading on Preconceptions: Why World War I Was Not a Failure of Economic Interdependence” in international security, and Patrick McDonald and Kevin Sweeney’s, “The Achilles’ heel of Liberal IR Theory?: Globalization and Conflict in the Pre-World War I Era,” in world politics. Scholars interested in the argument I make in my Reason essay would be well-served to read both of these articles.