Today I want to talk about neocolonialism. First, a bit of context. The period between Colombus’s first voyage in 1492 and the beginning of World War I in 1914 was an age of imperialism, where developed countries, primarily Spain, France, and England, colonized large swaths of Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia for largely economic reasons. They were initially looking for gold and other precious metals, and later for trade in commodities not available in Europe, such as spices, cotton, sugar, and tobacco. On all their various adventures, colonists discovered actual people living in the areas they were invading. Initially, they were an inconvenience, but then they became an asset to be exploited, as slaves, indentured servants, subjects, or simply people to take advantage of. Inevitably, the colonizers developed a narrative and justification for their exploitation—they were bringing civilization to the uncivilized, uplifting them and teaching them how to be better.
It probably never crossed the Europeans’ minds that most of these people were not particularly interested in being “civilized” and mostly wanted to be left alone to go about their business. Even if they did understand that, leaving them alone was unacceptable because, in the end, it was primarily about profit. The colonial era ended for the most part after World War II as country after country declared independence, and the colonizing powers were in no position, economically, militarily, or morally, to oppose them. They left a mixed legacy of some economic development, largely designed to benefit the colonizing power, language—Spanish, French, English—and a veneer of Western cultural norms. If one defines success here as the creation of stable democracies with decent economic growth, the record is decidedly mixed.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, what does this short history lesson have to do with trade policy? Good question. The answer is the growing use of trade policy to persuade our trading partners to pursue policies we believe are environmentally and morally superior. In other words, the West is still trying to civilize the former colonies by getting them to do things we think are good for them. Decarbonization, sustainability, worker rights, and environmental, social, and government principles, are all issues where developed countries have decided on the “right” policy and are busy pushing everybody else to adopt their point of view.
The dilemma is that, on the one hand, these are objectively good ideas important for the global commons, like decarbonization, and morally correct ones, like fighting slavery and forced labor. On the other hand, the path we are taking to spread our message looks like colonialism to the recipients. It’s the big, rich guys, who, by the way, have been guilty in the past and present of exactly the things we’re complaining about, nagging the little guys to shape up. This is obvious in climate debates, where developing countries point out, correctly, that the big emitters are still the large, developed countries who caused the problem in the first place and are not doing nearly enough to address it while they face disproportionate consequences, particularly the small island nations who face being submerged by rising sea levels. At a minimum, it would be nice if the big countries would be honest and admit they’ve been shortsighted for 200 years and are determined to fix their mistakes while at the same time asking developing countries not to repeat their errors.
On the moral front, forced labor and other exploitations of workers, and poor treatment of women are evil and pernicious practices, but they continue to exist because they are profitable and in some countries a centuries-old part of different cultures—the patriarchy is alive and well all over the world. Preaching and penalties, by and large, do not solve the problem, but they do make us feel better. We can tell ourselves we have struck a blow for freedom and equality, conveniently ignoring the fact that frequently our sanctions and penalties end up costing poor workers in developing countries, usually women, their jobs when factories close because they can no longer access the U.S. market. Are those workers exploited? Unquestionably yes. Are they better off having no jobs at all? I don’t think so. When I was lobbying on these issues, we would explain why proposed sanctions would be counterproductive. The response was usually, “We know they won’t work, but we have to do something.” My response was that they didn’t have to do something stupid, but I rarely made much progress.
We are now seeing this hubris pop up in trade agreements, where our new focus is on sustainability, inclusivity, and worker’s rights rather than market access. These are good things, but what’s missing is our understanding that the practices we don’t like are profitable for the influential people that engage in them, and that we are asking other governments to take steps that are expensive and politically risky without offering them anything in return beyond the moral certitude that these are good ideas. It may be true that we know better than they do what is good for them, but pushing our views on them brings back unwelcome colonial memories. At a minimum, we should remind ourselves that this is an area where carrots work better than sticks. Countries on the receiving end of our demands ask, quite logically, what’s in it for them, and we have nothing to offer.
William Alan Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.