A Historical Overview of the 21st-Century Protectionism



The main goal of this paper is to situate current trade policy debates in a proper historical context by analyzing the main trade policy milestones of the 21st-century. It does not attempt to offer an extensive historical overview of trade policy, which has been done masterfully by other scholars, but to analyze the events that have led to a stagnation of the multilateral trade system and rising protectionism. This paper begins with the winding road of trade liberalization since World War II, briefly tracing how we arrived from the early stages of the Bretton Wood System to the current moment of stagnation of the multilateral system and rising protectionism. It then turns to four key events to understand the current new reality: China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008 to 2009, the trade war between the United States and China, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in trade policy dynamics. It concludes with some final comments on the relevance of understanding current trade debates from a historical perspective.


Multilateralism, Protectionism, Trade Agreements, COVID-19 pandemic

Author Biography

Nicolas D. Albertoni, University of Southern California

Associate Professor, Universidad Católica del Uruguay. Associate Researcher, University of Southern California’s Security and Political Economy (SPEC).


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