Certain imports are often restricted in the name of preserving national security. In the event that a war would restrict their availability, governments must have access to a domestic supply of certain items such as weapons, fuel, and air, land, and sea transportation. Many nations continue to search for oil within their borders in case war disrupts its flow from outside sources. Legitimate national security reasons for intervention can be difficult to argue against, particularly when they have the support of most of a country’s people.

Some countries claim national security is the reason for fierce protection of their agricultural sector, for food security is essential at a time of war. France has been criticized by many nations for ardently protecting its agricultural sector. French agricultural subsidies are intended to provide a fair financial return for French farmers, who traditionally operate on a small scale and therefore have high production costs and low profit margins. But many developed nations are exposing agribusiness to market forces and prompting their farmers to discover new ways to manage risk and increase efficiency. Innovative farmers are experimenting with more intensive land management, high-tech precision farming, and greater use of biotechnology.

Yet protection from import competition does have its drawbacks. Perhaps the main one is the added cost of continuing to produce a good or provide a service domestically that could be supplied more efficiently from abroad. Also, a policy of protection may remain in place much longer than necessary once it is adopted. Thus policy makers should consider whether an issue truly is a matter of national security before intervening in trade.


Governments also have national security motives for banning certain defense-related goods from export to other nations. Most industrialized nations have agencies that review requests to export technologies or products that are said to have dual uses—meaning they have both industrial and military applications. Products designated as dual use are classified as such and require special governmental approval before export can take place.

Products on the dual-use lists of most nations include nuclear materials; technological equipment; certain chemicals and toxins; some sensors and lasers; and specific devices related to weapons, navigation, aerospace, and propulsion. Bans on the export of dual-use products were strictly enforced during the Cold War years between the West and the former Soviet Union. Whereas many countries relaxed enforcement of these controls in recent years, the continued threat of terrorism and fears of weapons of mass destruction are renewing support for such bans.

Protesters from the civic initiative called “” protest against genetically modified foods in front of the Bundestag in Berlin, Germany. All types of crops today, including corn, soybeans, and wheat, are grown with genetically enhanced seed technology to resist insects and disease. Many people in Europe fiercely resist U.S. efforts to export GM crops to their markets. Do you believe Europeans are right to be wary of the importation of genetically modified crops?

Source: Getty Images.

Nations also place certain companies and organizations in other countries on a list of entities that are restricted from receiving their exports. In 2008, the owner of an electronics firm pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to illegally export dual-use items from the United States to India for possible use in ballistic missiles, space launch vehicles, and fighter jets. Parthasarathy Sudarshan admitted that he provided the components to government entities in India including two companies on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s “Entity List.” Sudarsham was sentenced to 35 months in a U.S. federal prison and was fined $60,000.4

Respond to “Unfair” Trade

Many observers argue that it makes no sense for one nation to allow free trade if other nations actively protect their own industries. Governments often threaten to close their ports to another nation’s ships or to impose extremely high tariffs on its goods if the other nation does not concede on some trade issue that is seen as being unfair. In other words, if one government thinks another nation is not “playing fair,” it will often threaten to retaliate unless certain concessions are made.

Gain Influence

Governments of the world’s largest nations may become involved in trade to gain influence over smaller nations. The United States goes to great lengths to gain and maintain control over events in all of Central, North, and South America, and the Caribbean basin.

The United States has banned all trade and investment with Cuba since 1961 in the hope of exerting political influence against its communist leaders. Designed to pressure Cuba’s government to change, the policy caused ordinary Cubans to suffer and many perished trying to reach the United States on homemade rafts. But change is occurring in Cuba and since 2008 ordinary Cubans can buy DVD players, stay in tourist hotels, and use mobile phones. Even the concept of performance-related pay was introduced. These seemingly trivial freedoms represent monumental change to ordinary Cubans, who now hope for the right to buy cars, travel, and buy and sell property.5

Economic Motives

Although governments intervene in trade for highly charged cultural and political reasons, they also have economic motives for their intervention. The most common economic reasons for nations’ attempts to influence international trade are the protection of young industries from competition and the promotion of a strategic trade policy.

Protect Infant Industries

According to the infant industry argument, a country’s emerging industries need protection from international competition during their development phase until they become sufficiently competitive internationally. This argument is based on the idea that infant industries need protection because of a steep learning curve. In other words, only as an industry grows and matures does it gain the knowledge it needs to become more innovative, efficient, and competitive.

Although this argument is conceptually appealing, it does have several problems. First, the argument requires governments to distinguish between industries that are worth protecting and those that are not. This is difficult, if not impossible, to do. For years, Japan has targeted infant industries for protection, low interest loans, and other benefits. Its performance on assisting these industries was very good through the early 1980s but has been less successful since then. Until the government achieves future success in identifying and targeting industries, supporting this type of policy remains questionable.

Second, protection from international competition can cause domestic companies to become complacent toward innovation. This can limit a company’s incentives to obtain the knowledge it needs to become more competitive. The most extreme examples of complacency are industries within formerly communist nations. When their communist protections collapsed, nearly all companies that were run by the state were decades behind their competitors from capitalist nations. To survive, many government-owned businesses required financial assistance in the form of infusions of capital or outright purchase.

Third, protection can do more economic harm than good. Consumers often end up paying more for products because a lack of competition typically creates fewer incentives to cut production costs or improve quality. Meanwhile, companies become less competitive and more reliant on protection. Protection in Japan created a two-tier economy where in one tier highly competitive multinationals faced rivals in overseas markets and learned to become strong competitors. In the other tier, domestic industries were made noncompetitive through protected markets, high wages, and barriers to imports.

Fourth, the infant industry argument also says that it is not always possible for small, promising companies to obtain funding in capital markets, and thus they need financial support from their government. However, international capital markets today are far more sophisticated than in the past, and promising business ventures can normally obtain funding from private sources.


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