Index > Briefing
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
International Conflicts from the View of Trade Expectations Theory

Does economic interdependence between great powers have a significant effect on the probability of war between them? This once seemingly impossible question has become extremely realistic and urgent in the current tide of anti-globalization.

In fact, it is not the first time that free trade has been terminated, as all the great powers in the Western world had abandoned the principle of free trade at one point, such as Germany in 1879, France and Britain in 1881, and the United States as early as the 1860s during the Civil War. Global trade frictions and conflicts have developed from competing for raw materials, energy, and investment to today's competition for market space (see Chan Kung's "Spatial Determinism" for details).

There are two views on the relationship between economic interdependence and war. Liberals assert that with commercial ties, trade and investment flows can raise the opportunity cost of going to war and thereby providing a large material incentive to avoid war. Realists claim that commercial ties make states vulnerable to cutoffs, which can devastate an economy that has reoriented itself to rely on critical markets and goods from abroad, and thereby prompt leaders to go to war.

American scholar Dale C. Copeland believes that an additional causal variable, i.e., a state's expectations of the future trade and investment environment should be introduced to determine whether the liberal prediction or realist prediction would prevail. When a dependent state has positive expectations about this future environment, it is more likely to see all the benefits of continuing the current peace and all the costs of turning to war. Economic interdependence would then be a force for peace. Yet if a dependent state has negative expectations about the future economic environment, i.e., seeing itself being cut off from access to foreign trade and investment, or believing that other states will soon cut it off, then the realist logic will kick in. Such a state would tend to believe that without access to the vital raw materials, investments, and export markets needed for its economic health, its economy will start to fall relative to other less vulnerable actors. If this economic decline is anticipated to be severe, the leaders of the dependent state would then begin to view war as the rational option, the lesser of two evils. Such leaders would consider it is better to fight that being forced to submission.

This argument is similar to the "preventive wars" in the field of international political economy, and Dale C. Copeland calls it the "trade expectations theory". Copeland believes that in the situation where there are different great powers, the combination of economic interdependence along with expectations of future trade and investment was a critical driving force shaping the probability of war and conflict between these powers.

Several historical examples from the twentieth century are clear proving of this. Japan's attacks on Russia in 1904 and the United States in 1941 were intimately related to Japanese fears of future access to the raw materials and trade of the East Asian region. In the first case, Japan witnessed Russia's steady penetration into economically valuable areas of Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. After repeated and invariably unsuccessful efforts to convince Russia to pull back, Tokyo realized that only preventive war would mitigate Japan's long-term economic and military concerns. The closed economic policies of the great powers after 1929 had a devastating impact on Japan's economy and Japanese views of the future trade environment. Tokyo's efforts to consolidate its own economic sphere in Manchuria and northern China, spurred by its decades-long worry about Russian growth in the Far East, led to conflicts with the Soviet and Nationalist Chinese governments. When the United States entered the fray after 1938 and began a series of damaging economic embargoes, Japanese expectations of future trade fell even further, prompting a desperate effort to acquire access to oil and raw materials in Southeast Asia. The ultimate result was the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

During the forty-five-year Cold War struggle after World War II, there was a low level of economic dependence between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the "trade expectations theory" seemed unable to explain the geopolitical rivalry between the two great powers. Obviously, economic relations between states do not explain all the problems of geopolitics, which involves a variety of other issues (e.g., ideological rivalry, mutual military threats, etc.). However, the impact of economic relations can be seen even during the Cold War. In the late 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower's unwillingness to relax stringent economic restrictions alienated Nikita Khrushchev and contributed to the extreme tensions of the 1960–1962 period. But in the early 1970s and again in the late 1980s, Washington was more willing to commit itself to higher future trade with the Soviets. This proved critical to achieving an initial détente period and then an end to the Cold War altogether.

In the current tide of anti-globalization, it seems that the phenomenon of "trade expectations theory" can also be seen. The Trump administration, following the principle of "America First", believes that the major trading partners of the United States have taken advantage of the United States through trade, making the economic interests of the United States damaged, and China has caused the greatest economic damage to the United States. As a result, the United States has adopted a series of crackdowns and sanctions on its major trading partners, including China. The modern world is less prone to war between major powers but instead manifests in more diverse non-war forms, i.e., trade sanctions, technological sanctions and blockades, financial sanctions, diplomatic recriminations, and geopolitical repression. In the view of researchers at ANBOUND, this overall deterioration in geopolitical relations, triggered by economic ties, is merely an alternative to the "trade-security" model of war. If the geopolitical friction intensifies further and the threshold of a certain aspect is breached, a war of some kind is not out of the question.

The view of defensive realism is that national leaders, aware that their actions can lead to a vicious cycle of hostility, are justified in maintaining their current reputation for neutrality, prudent territorial policies, constant trade with other countries, and a willingness to embrace common international rules in a relatively open attitude. This view helps to create a pattern in which great powers tend to coexist for a long time without serious conflict or war. However, if national leaders take the view of aggressive realism, that in a leaderless world, great powers must always worry about what other nations will do in the future, and prepare for the worst, then they must maximize their power. The likelihood of violent conflict or even war between the great powers would then increase.

How to avoid security conflicts between great powers over trade issues? Some scholars have argued that it depends on the rationality of the national decision-makers, as well as the objective judgment on the strength and determination of both sides in the conflict. Rational actors have an incentive to reach agreements that prevent war from inflicting damage on each other so that the situation for war does not arise and thereby improving the circumstances of both sides. In the event that an actor does not understand the true balance of power and the determination of the other side, or do not trust the other side to keep the promises made in the agreement, war may occur.

Final analysis conclusion:

After World War II, the world as a whole has been largely at peace for 75 years (meaning that there was no major war involving a large number of countries). The current tide of anti-globalization and increasing geopolitical frictions is shaping up to be the most far-reaching and influential period of global trade and geopolitical turmoil since the end of the Cold War. "Trade expectations theory" explains the current global conflicts, as well as an idea for countries to make rational decisions and mitigate international conflicts.

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