Should Liberals Support Trade Restrictions Against Illiberal States? The Problem of Strange Bedfellows in Trade Politics

Liberal democracies sometimes impose sanctions or conditions on trade liberalization against foreign states that violate ethical standards in their institutions and policies. Several arguments provide a reason in support of these restrictions, even if the trade policy will not induce reforms in the foreign states in the near term. A liberal society’s reason for restricting trade with certain states is to maintain its own compliance with principles. As I interpret these arguments, cosmopolitan principles are required to explain why a society should have ethical concern about violations taking place in foreign states. The arguments also require statist principles to explain why a society should place its priority upon the moral improvement of its own legal system, domestic institutions, and political identity. I will raise considerations about the domestic politics of trade restrictions within many liberal societies, which may limit the extent to which this trade policy advances cosmopolitan and liberal principles. I note that anti-cosmopolitan groups can support this trade policy because they do not have strong objections to imposing costs on foreigners. Illiberal groups can support trade restrictions against certain states in order to bring about the moral improvement of their own society. The advocacy of these groups can change the expressed meaning of the restrictions, namely, whether the society acts from concern for violations in foreign states or from a stance of indifference. Also as a result of their advocacy, the trade policy can be implemented in ways that undermine the rule of law and other liberal values.