Trade is a tool for American national security


Free trade policies have recently come under attack on national security grounds. One of the attackers is Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO). His argument does not properly consider how trade strengthens national security or the example of trade with Ethiopia, which actually strengthened US security.

Hawley’s argument is that if trade were disrupted to the United States then our security would be at risk due to a lack of vital supplies and equipment. Better to have those industries be self-reliant.

This logic is a more moderate form of the concept of autarky. Autarky is the word we use for being completely self-reliant economically in order to be immune from trade disruptions. If we only consider the inconvenience of disruption to trade, then we can see how national security might be negatively affected. But international relations is a complex ecosystem, filled with nuances and opportunities. In the final analysis, autarky actually ends up decreasing national security.

The fallout caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict is one example. Before the war, Ethiopia depended heavily on Russian wheat. Now, Ethiopians’ access to these products is limited and they have had to find food from other sourced.

One of the first places they looked was the United States. Effectively, they shifted from relying on Russia for wheat to relying on us. Trade between both nations in other areas has improved as well. The United States also began lowering sanctions on Ethiopia in return. This allows for yet more trade between the two nations in the future, which should make them friendlier to the United States.

Several parties benefited from this increase in trade. American farmers were able to export more goods abroad and increase their profits. The United States was able to build influence in Africa. Ethiopia was able to feed its citizens and shift away from authoritarian influences. The United States increased its overall security and decreased the power of foreign rivals.

Wars give us another ready example of the limits of autarky. Countries at war blockade each other if possible during armed conflicts. If autarky was an easy and viable alternative to trade, they wouldn’t bother.

There are other trade-related policies the United States could enact to increase national security. One is enacting different kinds of trade agreements, such as ones based around mutual recognition of standards. There are countless different trade agreements the United States could sign onto or help write. In fact, free trade used to be a core part of our national security policy, but it has fallen out of prominence recently.

One specific trade agreement would be rejoining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership CPTPP or another similar Asian agreement. Another would be simplifying the proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) into a trade-only agreement, rather than an everything-bagel agreement.

Inking just one of these agreements could limit Chinese influence on foreign nations, increase American prosperity, and pull more nations into the American sphere of influence. This would certainly be better for national security than autarky or other trade limiting policies.

While limiting trade for the sake of national security seems intuitive, it does not look at the whole picture. Trade and trade deals play a major part in strengthening national security. American policymakers would do well to remember this in the future.