Protectionist measures by the US government have received considerable publicity. These include tariffs against China's solar panel exports, the dispute over rare earths, a bill against "subsidized" exports passed by both houses of the US Congress and other steps.
These measures are real. But it is also important not to exaggerate them. Protectionism is not the main trend in the global economy. This is shown both by factual economic trends and considering the underlying forces at work. Protectionist measures affect trade at the margins but do not alter the core of world trade which continues to expand.
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To show this first consider the facts. The volume of world trade fell severely during the international financial crisis, declining by 19.7 percent between April 2008 and May 2009. But it then more than recovered. According to the latest available data, by January 2012 the volume of world trade was 4.8 percent above pre-crisis levels - Figure 1.
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After the financial crisis US imports fell sharply, from 15.7 percent of GDP in the third quarter of 2008 to 10.6 percent of GDP in the second quarter of 2009, but then recovered to 14.8 percent of GDP by the fourth quarter of 2011.
Regarding relations between China and the US, frequently seen as the main area of protectionism, in dollar terms China's exports to the US rose 22 percent between their pre-crisis peak in September 2008 and the same month in 2011, well above the 15.4 percent increase to the EU, and not far behind the 27 per cent increase to Japan. In short, US post-financial crisis trends showed trade recovery, not deepening protectionism. Nor was protectionist actions even the main trend in trade between the US and China.
Claims that protectionism is the dominant trend in the world economy are therefore factually exaggerated, and take individual developments out of context without examining their overall weight.
Analysis of fundamental economic forces confirms why protectionism is not the main trend. Modern production is on such a large scale that it cannot find an adequate market for its volume of production, at efficient levels, purely within a national economy. That is why, for example, China's reform and opening-up was necessary, but exactly the same pressures affect the US.