Re-imagining trade for domestic and foreign policy

Exploring future trade policy through issues such as the green transition, labour standards, human rights, the role of the WTO, and non-trade policy objectives.

Expert comment
Published 7 December 2021 Updated 15 September 2023 6 minute READ

Balancing trade and non-trade policy objectives

Marianne Schneider-Petsinger

The supply chain disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic highlight trade cannot be taken for granted, and economic interdependencies have both benefits and costs. As international commerce rebounds and trade policy is increasingly seen through the prism of enhancing resilience, the moment is ripe to redefine and reimagine trade.

The goal of trade policy has never been to increase trade for trade’s sake, so a new narrative and framework for global trade requires striking a careful balance between pursuing trade and non-trade policy objectives.

Protecting the environment, strengthening labour standards, and upholding human rights have long been goals for which trade policy is used as a lever, and the interaction of trade and national security interests as well as the links between trade and competition policy are not new issues either.

All these non-trade policy aspects have come to the forefront as the geopolitical context has shifted and the transition to green and digital economies has gathered force – and, at times, these different non-trade policy goals clash.

The US and European Union (EU) are promoting solar energy to fight climate change but supply chains for solar panels are heavily reliant on forced labour from Xinjiang, and hence it is not yet certain whether environmental or human rights concerns will prevail. However, it is clear trade policy tools can be part of a comprehensive solution which manages inherent tensions while still advancing both objectives.

A new narrative and framework for global trade requires striking a careful balance between pursuing trade and non-trade policy objectives

Trade policy is also not just a foreign policy instrument but links closely to domestic policy – the populist backlash against globalization in much of the developed world, especially the US and Europe, was in part driven by anti-trade sentiment.

While American attitudes towards trade improved after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, positive views towards trade dropped sharply in 2021. The Biden administration’s worker-centred trade policy aims to address distributional effects of international economic integration which is a long-standing challenge. Thus, tackling non-trade policy issues without losing sight of this unresolved core issue requires careful calibration.

Trade policy is being pulled in many different directions at the same time as the core institution governing global trade – the World Trade Organization (WTO) – is in crisis, and it is uncertain how much of the non-trade policy agenda the WTO can handle. If the linkage to non-trade policy becomes too strong, this could be the straw that breaks the WTO’s back, but if it is too weak, the WTO risks becoming irrelevant in efforts to tackle key global challenges.

But if its 164 members can generate trade-oriented solutions to non-trade issues, they can revive the organization and mobilize domestic support for global trade at the same time. This balancing act in managing the tensions between trade and non-trade policy objectives lies at the centre of future-proofing trade policy and global trade governance.

Developing countries must be part of green trade revolution

Carolyn Deere Birkbeck

The biggest challenge in taking environmental efforts forward within the multilateral context is to successfully combine environmental ambition with an approach which engages developing countries as partners, reflects their environment-related trade priorities, and addresses their sustainable development interests.

Meaningful, inclusive dialogue and action at the WTO also requires deeper efforts to build policy coherence among environment, development, and trade policymaking at home

The importance of engaging developing countries must not be underestimated because it is vital a global green economy does not leave the poorest behind, or becomes two-tier where green trade happens only between certain countries and the essential task of incentivizing and supporting sustainable production and consumption patterns in all countries is neglected.

The new member-led initiatives at the WTO do signal that, while the rulemaking and negotiating functions remain central to the global trade body, governments recognize the need for enhanced, transparent, and inclusive policy dialogue as well as problem-solving on sectoral issues and specific trade-related challenges.

Given the well-documented challenges of achieving multilateral consensus at the WTO, governments are exploring new ways to work within multilateral frameworks and to redefine what progress and successful outcomes should look like.

Therefore, there is a need for best practices, voluntary action, pledges, and guidelines to both sustain the relevance of the multilateral trading system and support policy action at the national level for trade which underpins environmental and wider sustainable goals.

Making progress on an environmental agenda which reflects sustainable development concerns requires stronger leadership, engagement, and advocacy from business, civil society, and research communities in both developing and developed countries, as well as economies in transition.

Meaningful, inclusive dialogue and action at the WTO also requires deeper efforts to build policy coherence among environment, development, and trade policymaking at home, with environmental ministries having a key role to play in bringing expertise to bear and ensuring strong regulatory environments and institutions for the implementation of national, regional, and international environmental commitments.

But at the domestic level, many countries still have to overcome complex politics and diverse interests as they work to transform their economies toward greater sustainability and tackle the costs of transition.

Social preparation holds the key to trade transitions

Bernice Lee 

Trade being often depicted as the mother of all ills should not come as a surprise, as politicians are only too happy to put the blame on trade when all sorts of exogenous shocks, such as technological change, could actually be the trigger which fires the bullet into local industries or jobs.

Trade brings positive benefits only if a society is ready for trade, which often means having the cushion for social protection such as healthcare, unemployment benefits, and opportunities for training and reskilling

Admittedly trade does have a way of breaking the seams in the social fabric but the fact politicians often ignore negative impacts of trade means its benefits can be likened to Schrodinger’s cat, both real and illusive. But trade being mainly depicted as a ‘zero-sum’ pursuit and trade deals as the result of swashbuckling duels belie the reality that the real business of trade is often boring, bureaucratic, but necessary.

This is particularly true when trade provides access to a much larger variety of necessary products, such as medicine, food, and minerals, which can be expensive to make domestically. Selling products and services abroad also brings in the hard currency needed to buy these goods or to spend on trips abroad.

This does not take away the fact trade is extremely disruptive but, as a result of all the theorizing and understandable rants about trade, large swathes of the international community have effectively foregone it as a force for good or as an instrument which – while not the answer to all problems – can help smooth the path to well-being through efficiency gains and income growth, as well as putting to work the theory of comparative advantage as promised by the textbooks.

Alas, what the textbooks do not clearly spell out – until recently – is that trade brings positive benefits only if a society is ready for trade, which often means having the cushion for social protection such as healthcare, unemployment benefits, and opportunities for training and reskilling.

The ‘China shock’ literature vividly depicts how workers rarely seamlessly move from one job or sector to another and so, without adequate social protection, trade not only magnifies existing fractures, it also exacerbates inequality. As the aftershock lingers for decades, the lesson learned is the importance of social readiness for trade, especially the role played by governments in providing support for workers as part of the adjustment to trade and globalization.

Authors of this China shock literature recently suggested the next shock will be the transition from fossil fuel production, but the good news is this so-called ‘just transition’ challenge is one which proponents of green energy are well aware of.

But ultimately the China shock could be the dry run for the advent of machine intelligence, meaning better preparation is needed with solid social policies, investment in institutional readiness, and social preparedness to ensure the machines only take on monotonous and unsafe work – not our livelihoods and communities.

Trading partners must move to creating human rights impact

Dr Jennifer Zerk

The question of whether, and how, trade policy should be used as a way of addressing human rights concerns remains controversial and attempts to link the two still attract accusations of ‘protectionism’ and ‘neo-colonialism’.

Momentum appears to be behind those arguing for greater alignment between trade policy and human rights objectives – a trend which is most noticeable in the increasing willingness of trade partners to reference human rights standards in their trade agreements and in the growth of complementary activities such as human rights impact assessment and monitoring.

Evidence that these are having an impact ‘on the ground’ remains elusive. Nevertheless, efforts to enhance scrutiny of trade agreements from a human rights perspective, and to signal the importance of respect for human rights to a trading relationship, can still have value.

Even if causal relationships between trading arrangements and human rights impacts are difficult to establish conclusively, human rights impact assessment and subsequent monitoring activities provide valuable opportunities for stakeholders to weigh in on aspects of trade policy which are of concern.

Such processes not only help governments to realize rights of public participation, they also contribute to good governance by making it more likely that potential human rights problems will be recognized and addressed.

Turning to the agreements themselves, various ideas have been put forward on how to make these more responsive to human rights concerns.

Options mooted by EU institutions in recent years include an enhanced monitoring and enforcement role for consultative bodies established under specialized ‘trade and sustainable development’ chapters, and better mainstreaming of human rights commitments in sector-specific chapters.

However, given the political and resource-related difficulties in developing credible monitoring systems for human rights-related issues, and the unlikelihood of actual enforcement, many view this as little more than window-dressing.

For governments wanting to see real impact, ‘supply chain due diligence’ regimes pioneered by the EU in relation to timber and conflict minerals present a promising regulatory model.

The question of whether, and how, trade policy should be used as a way of addressing human rights concerns remains controversial

These regimes seek to curb trade in products derived from, or which aggravate, human rights abuses as well as aiming to promote more responsible sourcing of products by EU importers. They create powerful incentives within partner countries to crack down on harmful practices by producers, which are bolstered further by regulations that demand more proactive human rights risk management by EU operators throughout their supply chains. Capacity-building and aid packages have been deployed to help speed up the necessary reforms.

New regulatory measures imposing mandatory human rights due diligence obligations on companies operating in a much broader range of sectors are now under consideration by the European Commission. While the role of trade-related measures in the enforcement of this new regime is still unclear, trading partners should be sure to preserve the regulatory space for sector-level and company-level initiatives such as these in future agreements.

Understanding the impact of NTPOs on investment

Professor Michael Gasiorek

Increasingly, trade policy is not just all about achieving trade-related outcomes as international trade, by definition, involves interaction with partner countries and therefore trade policy with regard to those partner countries can be used as a means to achieve ‘non-trade policy objectives’ (NTPOs).

In turn this means trade policy is also no longer just about the domestic economy but also about policies and economies in other countries – such as poorer countries achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs), concerns about practices in other countries in areas such as governance or corruption, or a desire to address broader challenges such as climate change.

But the inclusion of NTPOs in trade policy arrangements between countries also creates possible impacts on investment flows between countries. Stronger NTPO commitments could have a negative impact both on foreign direct investment (FDI) and domestic investment because the commitments increase costs for the companies involved which makes the investment less attractive.

However, NTPOs bringing progress on governance, or strengthening institutions, or giving more clarity on environmental regulations could signal a more stable and safe business environment, with production standards which create increased market access for exports – all of which may lead to increased incentives to invest.

A third possibility is that NTPOs do not have much effect either way because, although trade agreement increasingly include provisions on economic and social rights, or civil and political rights, or environmental protection – these are typically ‘best endeavour’ clauses which are frequently not binding or subject to dispute settlement, making them less likely to be implemented.

Understanding the impact of NTPOs on investment contd.

Although the evidence on NTPOs and investment is rather mixed, this is not surprising because the underlying motives for undertaking investment are highly varied – think of the differences between horizontal FDI aimed at serving the local market and vertical FDI aimed at part of the supply chain, to export platform FDI – and can take a variety of forms such as greenfield or brownfield.

The circumstances of the industry and country in question will matter so it is important to understand better the nature of these differentiated responses to NTPOs on investment. There is some evidence that, where NTPOs impact negatively on investment, the impact is greater if that investment is directed to less developed countries.

Clearly, this matters because, although the introduction of NTPOs into trade policy discussions is a legitimate way to encourage reform and progress in areas which go beyond the traditional remit of trade policy, it is important to recognize there may be trade-offs in other areas such as investment flows which, in turn, may impact on development and reform.

This article is part of the Chatham House Global Trade Policy Forum, promoting research and policy recommendations on the future of global trade.