A Domino Theory of Regionalism

Richard Baldwin

NBER Working Paper No. 4465
Issued in September 1993
NBER Program(s):   ITI

Regional liberalization sweeps the globe like wildfire while multilateral nude talks proceed at a glacial pace. Why are countries eager to liberalize regionally but reluctant to do so multilaterally? The answer of the GATT-is-dead school is that multilateralism is too cumbersome for contemporary trade issues, This paper proposes a very different answer. Recent regionalism is caused by two idiosyncratic events multiplied by a domino effect. The triggering events - the U.S-Mexico ETA and the EC's 1992 programmes had nothing to do with GATT's health. The domino effect is simple. Political equilibria, which balance anti- and pro-membership forces, determine governments' stances on regional liberalization. Domestic exporters to regional blocs are a powerful pro-membership constituency. An event that triggers closer integration within an existing bloc harms the profits of nonmember exporters, thus stimulating them to boost their promembership political activity. The extra activity alters the political equilibrium, leading some countries to join. This enlargement further harms nonmember exporters since they now face a disadvantage in a greater number of markets. This second round effect brings forth more promembership political activity and a further enlargement of the bloc. The new political equilibrium is marked by larger regional trading blocs. In the meantime regionalism appears to spread like wildfire.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w4465

Published: Expanding European Regionalism: The EU's New Members, Baldwin, R., P. Haaparanta and J. Kiander (eds.), Cambridge University Press: 1995.

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