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I'm setting the protectionist threat level to safety orange

The protectionist threat level is now safety orange 

When the Obama administraton announced the decision to slap a 35% tariff on Chinese tire imports, I was pretty sure that free traders would be incensed.  And I haven't been disappointed -- even the financial markets are freaking out over this one. 

We trade enthusiasts are an excitable lot, however, what with everything leading to the falling off of cliffs, crossroads being reached, and red zones being breached.  Seven years ago, the allegedly free-trade Bush administration imposed steel tariffs that were found to be WTO-inconsistent.  There was a lot of gnashing of teeth and wailing at the time about the end of the open economy as we knew it -- yet the world trade system proved to be pretty robust.  So maybe my trade compatriots are exaggerating things a wee bit, yes?  In all likelihood, won't this be resolved via the WTO dispute settlement mechanism about 18 months from now?

For the first eight months of the Obama administration, I've been resisting the urge to shout "protectionism" at the drop of the hat.  This time, however, there are four reasons why I'm feeling much more nervous: 

1)  This isn't your garden-variety protectionism.  Last month, Chad Bown explained the Financial Times why this decision was a very special kind of protectionism

[A] little-known loophole in the rules governing China’s 2001 WTO accession makes it easy for a global protectionist response to spread faster and further than that which took hold in 2002. Nowadays, once any one country imposes a China safeguard on imports, all other WTO members can immediately follow suit, without investigating whether their own industries have been injured.

So this trade dispute can metastasize more quickly than most. 

2)  Beijing is not lying down on this.  China's furious and swift reaction points to another problem:  the United States is not the only country feeling protectionist urges at the moment.  Economic nationalism in China is riding quite high at the moment, as Keith Bradsher suggests in the New York Times

The Chinese government’s strong countermove followed a weekend of nationalistic vitriol against the United States on Chinese Web sites in response to the tire tariff. “The U.S. is shameless!” said one posting, while another called on the Chinese government to sell all of its huge holdings of Treasury bonds....

China had initially issued a fairly formulaic criticism of the tire dispute Saturday. But rising nationalism in China is making it harder for Chinese officials to gloss over American criticism.

“All kinds of policymaking, not just trade policy, is increasingly reactive to Internet opinion,” said Victor Shih, a Northwestern University specialist in economic policy formulation.

Methinks Shih and Bradsher are exaggerating things a wee bit -- imagine for a moment if U.S. foreign policy was driven by people getting upset on the Internet -- but you get the point.   

The U.S. use of this provision is doubly troubling, because from Beijing's perspective their WTO accession negotiations were seen as a humiliating kowtow to the power of the West.  China is not going to be selling its bonds anytime soon, but Beijing has not quite mastered how to cope with these kinds of domestic pressures, so they could do something really, really stupid.

3)  Politically, Obama has boxed himself in.  As egregious as the Bush steel tariffs were, they were targeted at a sector and not a country.  Furthermore, the Bush administration responded to the hubbub very quickly by watering down the worst effect of the tariffs. 

The Obama administration's new tariff is expressly directed at China.  And I'm not saying that China is blameless here.  But because it's country-specific, the administration has less room to maneuver -- either the tariffs are applied against China or they aren't.  It can't walk this back without it looking like a flip-flop.  Which means that there's little room for concession or negotiation. 

4)  Obama's base scares me on trade.  When the Bush administration did what it did, it was fulfilling a campaign promise to the state of West Virginia steelwokers.  Fortunately, the rest of Bush's winning political coalition was not seeking trade relief.  So the protectionist instinct pretty much ended with the steel tariffs -- and everyone in the Bush administration knew that they'd be overturned by the WTO eventually. 

With the Obama administration, however, this feels like the tip of the iceberg.  Most of Obama's core constituencies want greater levels of trade protection for one reason (improving labor standards) or another (protecting union jobs).  This isn't going to stop.  "Trade enforcement" has been part and parcel of Obama's trade rhetoric since the campaign.  The idea that better trade enforcement will correct the trade deficit, however, is pure fantasy.  It belongs in the Department of Hoary Political Promises, like, "We'll balance the budget by cracking down on tax cheats!" or "By cutting taxes I can raise government revenues!"  It.  Can't.  Happen. 

If I knew this was where the Obama administration would stop with this sort of nonsense, I'd feel a bit queasy but chalk it up to routine trade politics.  When I look at Obama's base, however, quasiness starts turning into true nausea. 

Developing.... in a very, very scary way. 

UPDATE:  More from Brad DeLong, Dave Schuler, and Shadow Government's Phil Levy

Daniel W. Drezner

Theory of International Politics and Zombies

[NOTE TO 2011 AND BEYOND READERS OF THIS POST:  If you like what you read here, then trust me, you'll love the book that came from it:  Theories of International Politics and Zombies, (Princeton University Press, 2011).  This post is where it all began!!]

Alex Massie alerts us to this BBC story about modeling who would win if the dead actually did rise from the grave

If zombies actually existed, an attack by them would lead to the collapse of civilisation unless dealt with quickly and aggressively.

That is the conclusion of a mathematical exercise carried out by researchers in Canada.

They say only frequent counter-attacks with increasing force would eradicate the fictional creatures....

To give the living a fighting chance, the researchers chose "classic" slow-moving zombies as our opponents rather than the nimble, intelligent creatures portrayed in some recent films....

[T]heir analysis revealed that a strategy of capturing or curing the zombies would only put off the inevitable.

In their scientific paper, the authors conclude that humanity's only hope is to "hit them [the undead] hard and hit them often".

They added: "It's imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly or else... we are all in a great deal of trouble."  

Now, one could argue that this finding represents a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious. On the other hand, the report has clear freaked out Alex Massie:

[The researchers] are cheating. It's like something out of Dad's Army: You can't fight like that, it's not in the rules... Then again, if we can be destroyed by Zombie 1.0, just think how powerless we'd be when confronted by Next Generation Zombies...

To try to make Massie feel better let's have some fun with this and ask a different question -- what would different systemic international relations theories* predict regarding the effects of a zombie outbreak? Would the result be inconsequential -- or World War Z

A structural realist would argue that, because of the uneven distribution of capabilities, some governments will be better placed to repulse the zombies than others. Furthermore, anyone who has seen Land of the Dead knows that zombies are not deterred by the stopping power of water. So that's the bad news. 

The good news is that these same realists would argue that there is no inherent difference between human states and zombie states.  Regardless of individual traits or domestic instiutions, human and zombie actors alike are subject to the same powerful constraint of anarchy. Therefore, the fundamental character of world politics would not be changed. Indeed, it might even be tactically wise to fashion temporary alliances with certain zonbie states as a way to balance against human states that try to exploit the situation with some kind of idealistic power grab made under the guise of "anti-zombieism." So, according to realism, the introduction of zombies would not fundamentally alter the character of world politics. 

A liberal institutionalist would argue that zombies represent a classic externality problem of... dying and then existing in an undead state and trying to cause others to do the same. Clearly, the zombie issue would cross borders and affect all states -- so the benefits from policy coordination would be pretty massive.

This would give states a great opportunity to cooperate on the issue by quickly fashioning a World Zombie Organization (WZO) that would codify and promnulgate rules on how to deal with zombies. Alas, the effectiveness of the WZO would be uncertain. If the zombies had standing and appealed any WZO decision to wipe them out, we could be talking about an 18-month window when zombies could run amok without any effective regulation whatsoever. 

Fortunately, the United States would likely respond by creating the North American F*** Zombies Agreement -- or NAFZA -- to handle the problem regionally. Similarly, one would expect the European Union to issue one mother of a EU Directive to cope with the issue, and handle questions of zombie comitology. Indeed, given that zombies would likely be covered under genetically modified organisms, the EU would trumpet the Catragena Protocol on Biosafety in an "I told you so" kind of way. Inevitably, Andrew Moravcsik would author an essay about the inherent superiority of the EU approach to zombie regulation, and why so many countries in Africa prefer the EU approach over the American approach of "die, motherf***ers, die!!"  Oh, and British beef would once again be banned as a matter of principle. 

Now, avid followers of social constructivism might think that Wendt and Duvall (2008) have developed a model that would be useful for this kind of event... but you would be wrong. Back when this paper was in draft stage, I specifically queried them about wther their argument about UFOs could be generalized to zombies, vampires, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, Elvis, etc.  Their answer was an emphatic "no":  aliens would be possessors of superior technology, while our classic sci-fi canon tells us that the zombies, while resistant to dying, are not technologically superior to humans. So that's a dead end.

Instead, constructivists would posit that the zombie problem is what we make of it.  That is to say, there are a number of possible emergent norms in response to zombies. Sure, there's the Hobbesian "kill or be killed" end game that does seem to be quite popular in the movies.  But there could be a Kantian "pluralistic anti-Zombie" community that bands together and breaks down nationalist divides in an effort to establish a world state. Another way of thinking about this is that the introduction of zombies creates a stronger feeling of ontological security among remaining humans -- i.e., they are not flesh-eaters (alas, those bitten by zombies are now both physically and ontologically screwed). 

Unfortunately, I fear that constructivists would predict a norm cascade from the rise of zombies. As more and more people embrace the zombie way of undead life, as it were, the remaining humans would feel social pressure to conform and eventually internalize the norms and practices of zombies -- kind of like the early-to-middle section of Shaun of the Dead. In the end, even humans would adopt zombie-constructed perceptions of right and wrong, and when it's apprpriate to grunt in a menacing manner. 

Now, some would dispute whether neoconservatism is a systemic argument, but let's posit that it's a coherent IR theory.  To its credit, the neoconservatives would recognize the zombie threat as an existential threat to the human way of life.  Humans are from Earth, whereas zombies are from Hades -- clearly, neoconservatives would argue, zombies hate us for our freedom not to eat other humans' brains.   

While the threat might be existential, accommodation or recognition are not options.  Instead, neocons would quickly gear up an aggressive response to ensure human hegemony.  However, the response would likely be to invade and occupy the central state in the zombie-affected area.  After creating a human outpost in that place, humans in neighboring zombie-affected countries would be inspired to rise up and overthrow their own zombie overlords.  Alas, while this could happen, a more likely outcone would be that, after the initial "Mission Accomplished" banner had been raised, a fresh wave of zombies would rise up, enmeshing the initial landing force -- which went in too light and was drawn down too quickly -- in a protracted, bloody stalemate. 

Readers are hereby encouraged in the comments to posit other IR theoretical prediction of the response to a zombie uprising. For example, would the zombie uprising confirm Marxist predictions about the revolt of the proletariat? 

*Alas, your humble blogger does not have the time to puzzle out the zombie effect on two-level games. 

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images