The Dynamics of Free Trade and FDI during the Globalization Era

Multilateralism waned, but the process of trade liberalization continued.

This blog article is a short excerpt from Country Risk – The Bane of Foreign Investors (Springer, 2020) by Norbert Gaillard.

International trade went through unexpected and paradoxical changes during the globalization era (1991–2016). Multilateralism waned, but the process of trade liberalization continued. For instance, the average tariff rate for the Group of Twenty (G20) fell from 13% during 1991–1994 to 5% during 2013–2016.1 How can this evolution be explained?

After the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was superseded by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, several challenges arose that rendered multilateral trade talks increasingly complex and lengthy. First, under the WTO regime, tariff rates and market-opening commitments are binding, which deters members from further liberalizing their trade policy. Second, the WTO’s admission of China in 2001 stirred mistrust among other WTO members, whatever their income level. Third, as industrialized countries had reduced their tariffs substantially during the previous GATT rounds, they had little maneuvering room left to obtain trade liberalization in emerging countries – with regard to financial services, for example. Fourth, the sustained growth of international trade in the 1990s and 2000s called into question the relevance of new multilateral talks.

In this context, it is not surprising that the Doha Round, launched in 2001, failed to achieve any trade liberalization agreements (see Cohn 2007). However, some minor progress was observed with the Nairobi Package of 2015, which removed subsidies for farm exports. In fact, other means were employed to effect trade liberalization during 1991–2016: unilateral actions, regional trade agreements (RTAs), and international investment agreements (IIAs).

Unilateral tariff cuts by several emerging countries (e.g., China, India, and Indonesia) were part of offshoring-led development strategies designed to attract foreign investments. These countries’ final objectives were to integrate themselves into global value chains, absorb knowledge and technologies, and export an even wider range of products and services.

The signing of RTAs was another feature of globalization. The number of RTAs in force rose by a factor of 5 within 25 years. However, the nature of those agreements changed significantly during that time span. Contrary to what was observed at the dawn of globalization, the bulk of RTAs signed in the 2010s were “deep” agreements. Thus, they transcend traditional tariff cuts to cover multiple policy areas: competition policy, anti-dumping measures, environmental laws, labor market regulations, and so forth (see Mattoo et al. 2017).

The boom in IIAs was certainly the most salient feature of the past three decades. These agreements, which include treaties with investment provisions (TIPs) and bilateral investment treaties (BITs), contributed to reshaping international business relations and increasing the levels of protection enjoyed by foreign investors. A typical IIA’s main provisions include protection against expropriation risk, convertibility risk, and arbitrary or discriminatory measures; they may also ensure “protection and security”, and/or “most favored nation” treatment.2

Several conclusions can be drawn from these trends in international investment rulemaking. First, they reflected the outright triumph of globalization. Second, they enabled developing countries to gain credibility. Vashchilko (2011) shows that risky economies that signed BITs managed thereby to reassure international investors, which stimulated FDI inflows. Third, the growing proportion of BITs involving exclusively low- and middle-income countries evidenced the ongoing enlargement of the group of capital-exporting nations.3 Such evolution went hand in hand with the mutation of capitalism.

The growing geopolitical tensions between China and the United States are likely to undermine such dynamics of free trade and foreign direct investment. In fact, it seems we are entering what I call the “post-globalization era” (Gaillard 2020). Post-globalization involves “a logic of high interdependence in the economic, trade, migration, and technological areas between States (and their companies) whose geopolitical interests are convergent, or at least compatible. This implies the elimination, the reduction, the selection, and/or the control of dependence and interdependence relations.” This new paradigm will oblige policy makers and economic leaders to revise radically their diplomatic, economic, and financial strategies.

1 Author calculations based on the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. The G20 comprises Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It accounted for more than 80% of merchandise trade in 2016 (author calculation based on

2 The “protection and security” provisions require that host countries take measures to prevent the destruction of an investor’s property.

3 About 33% of the BITs that entered into force during 2016 did not involve a high-income economy, compared with less than 12% in 1991 (see source).


Cohn, T. H. (2007), “The Doha Round: Problems, Challenges, and Prospects,” in Studer, I. and Wise, C. (Eds.), Requiem or Revival? – The Promise of North American Integration, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Gaillard, N. (2020), “Le COVID-19, accélérateur de la post-mondialisation,” Politique Etrangère, Vol. 85, No. 3.

Mattoo, A., Mulabdic, A. and Ruta, M. (2017), “Trade Creation and Trade Diversion in Deep Agreements,” World Bank Policy Research, Working Paper 8206.

Vashchilko, T. (2011), Three Essays on Foreign Direct Investment and Bilateral Investment Treaties, Dissertation in Political Science, Pennsylvania State University.

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