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date: 04 March 2021

Trade: Determinants of Policieslocked

  • Marc L. BuschMarc L. BuschEdmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Professor of Government, Georgetown University
  •  and Edward D. MansfieldEdward D. MansfieldPolitical Science Department, University of Pennsylvania


A survey of the literature on trade has revealed that it is becoming more difficult for elected officials resist protectionist pressures by citing constraints imposed by global pacts and supply free trade. There are two main reasons why. First, the literature on the design and politics of international institutions increasingly emphasizes how they build in slack that can undermine government claims of being constrained. Second, as states accede to an ever-growing list of overlapping international institutions, there is often a choice among, or uncertainty over, which institution’s obligations apply. Where this situation creates more policy space for government officials, it also will make it more difficult for them to credibly tie their hands and supply free trade in the face of interest group pressures for protection. Currently, the literature is somewhat at a turning point. Questions about the design and politics of international institutions, and the growing thickness of the market for them, are very much in vogue. These questions have profound implications for the supply of free trade. The credibility of elected officials’ hands-tying strategies is likely undermined where institutions anticipate the political reactions of their members, or where members can shop for different rules on trade to accommodate domestic preferences. The irony is that the proliferation of international institutions may lead scholars of trade policy to renew their focus on domestic interest groups.

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