A Domino Theory of Regionalism
Regional liberalization sweeps the globe like wildfire while multilateral trade 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 FTA and the EC's 1992 programme – 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 pro-membership 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 pro-membership 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.