Global Tariff Negotiations as a Stumbling Bloc to Global Free Trade?

By James Lake (Southern Methodist University) and Santanu Roy (Southern Methodist University)

The principle of non-discrimination lies at the heart of the WTO. GATT Article I mandates that, for a given product, a country cannot set different tariffs on different trading partners. Indeed, GATT Article I has provided the bedrock for the various rounds of global trade negotiations, including the 1994 Uruguay Round. However, GATT Article XXIV allows Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) whereby members eliminate tariffs on each other while maintaining tariffs on non-members. Thus, FTAs directly contradict the non-discrimination principle. In turn, an important and long standing issue in the FTA literature is whether FTAs help or hinder global trade negotiations. In the famous language of Jagdish Bhagwati, are PTAs “building blocs” or “stumbling blocs” to global trade liberalization?

A long literature has tackled Bhagwati’s question.[1] However, the interdependence between FTAs and global trade negotiations need not only run from FTAs to global negotiations. The process of global negotiations may also impact the process of FTA formation and, in turn, the degree of global trade liberalization. That is, the tariff concessions embedded in the Uruguay Round may have shaped the subsequent process of FTA formation and, in turn, the ultimate degree of global trade liberalization. Yet, as noted by Caroline Freund and Emanuel Ornelas in their review of the literature, the impact of global negotiations on FTAs has received surprisingly little attention in the literature.[2]

In a recent paper, we investigate how an initial round of global negotiations over tariff bindings (i.e. the upper bound on tariffs) impact the subsequent process of FTA formation in a three-country world where governments favor the interests of their import competing sector due to political economy motivations.[3] To do so, we compare the outcomes of two extensive form games that differ only because of the presence or absence of an initial round of global tariff negotiations. In the first game, global negotiations precede FTA negotiations and forward looking governments anticipate the possibility of FTA formation during global negotiations. In the second game, there are no global negotiations preceding FTA negotiations. In either game, FTA negotiations take place sequentially through a randomly chosen order. This framework generates interesting insights.

Our main result is that, when political economy motivations are not too strong, global tariff negotiations actually prevent global free trade. When global tariff negotiations precede FTA negotiations, a tariff ridden world emerges with globally negotiated tariff bindings above zero and no more than one pair of countries linked by an FTA. However, in the absence of global tariff negotiations, FTA formation continues until global free trade is attained via all pairs of countries linked through FTAs. Thus, global tariff negotiations are the cause of a world stuck short of global free trade. In other words, global tariff negotiations are a stumbling bloc to global free trade!

The driving force behind our main result is the different level of tariff concessions given by the eventual FTA non-member in the presence and absence of global tariff negotiations. In the absence of global tariff negotiations, the FTA non-member has no pre-existing tariff bindings. To gain tariff concessions from the outsider, FTA members have strong incentives to form subsequent FTAs with the non-member. Indeed, as long as government political economy motivations are not too strong, sequential FTA formation leads to global free trade. However, global negotiations produce significant tariff binding concessions by all countries before FTA negotiations. These tariff concessions obtained through forward looking global negotiations are deep enough that, upon FTA formation, FTA members no longer have any incentive for FTA formation with the non-member and global free trade does not emerge. In this sense, the success of global tariff negotiations in lowering tariffs drives our result that global tariff negotiations prevent global free trade.

From a practical standpoint, our analysis explains how globally negotiated tariffs depend on anticipations regarding future FTA formation and how binding overhang and tariff complementarity depend on political economy motivations.[4] Indeed, our analysis can shed light on the different empirical results of Antoni Estevadeordal, Caroline Freund and Emanuel Ornelas versus Nuno Limao and Baybars Karacaovali.[5] The former find empirical evidence for tariff complementarity among South American FTA members (i.e. FTA members choose to lower their tariffs on non-members after FTA formation). However, the latter find no evidence that preferential tariff liberalization begets multilateral tariff liberalization for the US and the EU. Our theoretical results suggest the former (latter) should emerge among governments with relatively strong (weak) political economy motivations. Indeed, these predictions based on political economy motivations square well with the recent cross-country empirical estimates of political economy motivations by Kishore Gawande, Pravin Krishna and Marcelo Olarreaga.[6]


Estevadeordal, A., C. Freund, and E. Ornelas (2008); “Does Regionalism Affect Trade Liberalization Toward Nonmembers?” Quarterly Journal of Economics 123(4): 1531-1575.

Freund, C. (2000); “Multilateralism and the Endogenous Formation of Preferential Trade Agreements.Journal of International Economics 52 (2): 359-376.

Freund, C. and E. Ornelas (2010); “Regional Trade Agreements.Annual Review of Economics 2(1): 139-166.

Gawande, K., P. Krishna, and M. Olarreaga (2012): “Lobbying Competition over Trade Policy.International Economic Review 53 (1), 115-132.

Karacaovali, B. and N. Limão (2008); “The Clash of Liberalizations: Preferential vs. Multilateral Trade Liberalization in the European Union.Journal of International Economics 74(2): 299-327.

Krishna, P. (1998); “Regionalism and Multilateralism: A Political Economy Approach.Quarterly Journal of Economics 113(1): 227-251.

Lake, J. and S. Roy (2017); “Are Global Trade Negotiations Behind a Fragmented World of Gated Globalization?Journal of International Economics 108, 117-136.

Limão, N. (2006); “Preferential Trade Agreements as Stumbling Blocks for Multilateral Trade Liberalization: Evidence for the United States.American Economic Review 96(3): 896-914.

Ornelas, E. (2005a). “Endogenous Free Trade Agreements and the Multilateral Trading System.Journal of International Economics 67(2): 471-497.

Ornelas, E. (2005b); “Trade Creating Free Trade Areas and the Undermining of Multilateralism.European Economic Review 49 (7): 1717-1735.


[1] Some influential contributions include Krishna (1998), Riezman (1999), Ornelas (2005a,b) and Saggi and Yildiz (2010).

[2] See Freund and Ornelas (2008) for two exceptions, and see Freund and Ornelas (2010) for their review of the literature.

[3] In our paper Lake and Roy (2017), we model global tariff negotiations over tariff bindings because countries negotiate over tariff bindings rather than the actual tariffs (i.e. applied tariffs) in practice.

[4] Binding overhang is the difference between the tariff binding and the actual tariff set by a country. Tariff complementarity is the phenomenon where, upon FTA formation, the FTA members choose to lower their tariffs on non-members.

[5] Estevadeordal et. al. (2008), Limao (2006) and Karacaovali and Limao (2008).

[6] Gawande, Krishna and Olarreaga (2012).