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Between free trade and protectionism: strategic trade policy and a theory of corporate trade demands

  • Milner, Helen V.
  • Yoffie, David B.
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    Conventional theories of the political economy of trade argue that industries in import-competing businesses favor protectionism, while multinational firms and export-dependent corporations advocate unconditional free trade. However, many multinational industries have recently advocated “strategic” trade policies: that is, they are willing to support free trade at home only if foreign markets are opened or foreign governments reduce subsidies to their firms. If demands for strategic trade policy were adopted by the United States, they could represent a threat to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the multilateral trading system. This article seeks to explain the emergence of these new corporate trade demands and thereby broaden theories of the political economy of trade. The article begins with the widely supported position that multinational and export-oriented firms prefer unconditional free trade. Building on concepts from theories of industrial organization and international trade, the article then hypothesizes that rising economies of scale and steep learning curves will necessitate that these firms have access to global markets via exports. If growing dependence on world markets is combined with foreign government subsidies or protection, the trade preferences of firms will shift from unconditional free trade to demands that openness at home be contingent on openness overseas. The manner in which firm demands then get translated into industry demands will vary with the industry's structure. If the industry consists of firms with symmetric strategies, it will seek strategic trade policy; but if the industry is highly segmented, it will turn toward protectionism. The article concludes with a preliminary test of these hypotheses in four brief studies of the politics of trade in the semiconductor, commercial aircraft, telecommunications equipment, and machine tool industries.

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    Article provided by Cambridge University Press in its journal International Organization.

    Volume (Year): 43 (1989)
    Issue (Month): 02 (March)
    Pages: 239-272

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    Handle: RePEc:cup:intorg:v:43:y:1989:i:02:p:239-272_03
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