America's Commercial Cold War: Global Trade, National Security, and the Control of Markets

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Previous works considering the history of American trade policy during the Cold War have tended to focus on either the United States’ export control policy in the unilateral and multilateral context or the Cold War’s influence on the formation and evolution on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. While useful, these studies are limited by their narrowness. To date, no single work has emerged accounting for trade’s place in American Cold War strategy or the reciprocal impact that economic globalization and the Cold War had on each other.

I argue that American Cold War trade policy was an “economic containment” exercise. The United States’ “Commercial Cold War” was conceptualized by strategists as a struggle between two rival, yet interdependent networks—one liberal and capitalist, and led by the United States; the other communist and led at the outset by the Soviet Union. The United States used trade both positively and negatively to achieve a variety of ends. Its overarching goal was to use trade to develop its network at the expense of the Soviet Union’s.

This strategy assumed centralized, flexible control over trade policy in order to capitalize on diplomatic openings. Successive American presidents aspired to such trade policy control. But the diffusion of power throughout the U.S. government and across the Western alliance rendered that impossible. It proved far easier to deny East-West trade than to expand it, and more assertive American initiatives were often stymied. But despite the limits on unilateral action, the multilateral trade architectures that were established during the Cold War proved adequate to their purposes and remain in renovated form in the 21st Century.