The best history books to understand why international trade is all about politics

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a professor of history at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. I have written about the history of international organizations, international trade, the British Commonwealth, and Canada in the world. Although these topics have taken me in different directions, I have always examined the political currents that run through them. Politics emerge in relation to ideology, policymaking, leadership, norms, values, interests, identity, international relations, and global governance. I have been especially interested in connecting economics and politics. Many scholars write about trade policies, organizations, and negotiations as though they are technical and narrowly economic when they are agents, instruments, and expressions of international politics. 


I wrote...

GATT and Global Order in the Postwar Era

By Francine McKenzie,

Book cover of GATT and Global Order in the Postwar Era

What is my book about?

My book is an institutional history of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the GATT) that connects international trade and international politics. I explain how international trade was associated with peace and prosperity, fortified the Western alliance in the Cold War, exacerbated tensions between the global North and global South, sparked regional trade agreements that threatened to splinter the world into rival blocs, reinforced national security, sustained and undermined American leadership, and galvanized domestic groups that lobbied for and objected to freer trade. Trade was a dominant and divisive aspect of international relations and a vital component of global order. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present

Francine McKenzie Why did I love this book?

This book shows how trade has long connected people and societies all over the world, from miners in Potosi, to coffee growers in Yemen, and traders and shippers from Fujian.

Topik and Pomeranz reject a Eurocentric approach to the history of international trade and they put real people back into the story. The engaging vignettes in this collection are not primarily about politics, but they make clear why trade is political and polarizing.

The workings of international trade powerfully affected people’s lives, for better and for worse, and so people reacted strongly to trade, as committed champions and tireless opponents.

By Kenneth Pomeranz, Steven Topik,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World That Trade Created as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The World That Trade Created brings to life the history of trade and its actors. In a series of brief, highly readable vignettes, filled with insights and amazing facts about things we tend to take for granted, the authors uncover the deep historical roots of economic globalization.

Covering over seven hundred years of history, this book, now in its fourth edition, takes the reader around the world from the history of the opium trade to pirates, to the building of corporations and migration to the New World. The chapters are grouped thematically, each featuring an introductory essay designed to synthesize…


Book cover of Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy

Francine McKenzie Why did I love this book?

Irwin’s history of US trade policy from the colonial period to the early 21st century will convince you that you cannot write about domestic and international politics without writing about tariffs and trade.

Because international trade affected people, regions, and sectors of the economy in different ways, trade policies elicited support and opposition. Given the importance of the United States to the global economy, it is crucial to understand how trade policy has been mired in politics.

While Irwin’s study focuses on the United States, there is no reason to think trade is less combustible elsewhere. 

By Douglas A. Irwin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Clashing over Commerce as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Should the United States be open to commerce with other countries, or should it protect domestic industries from foreign competition? This question has been the source of bitter political conflict throughout American history. Such conflict was inevitable, James Madison argued in The Federalist Papers, because trade policy involves clashing economic interests. The struggle between the winners and losers from trade has always been fierce because dollars and jobs are at stake: depending on what policy is chosen, some industries, farmers, and workers will prosper, while others will suffer. Douglas A. Irwin's Clashing over Commerce is the most authoritative and comprehensive…


Book cover of Revolution in Development: Mexico and the Governance of the Global Economy

Francine McKenzie Why did I love this book?

This book explains why Mexico has been important to the governance of the global economy.

Mexican officials and economists promoted a post-colonial and development conception of the global economy based on equality, inclusion, and redistribution. Thornton writes about the entire architecture of the global economy, of which international trade was an important part.

Her work explains the significance of a politics of resistance that shaped and was suppressed by the global economic order. She notes that scholarship that excludes or minimizes global South countries perpetuates their marginalization.

By Christy Thornton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Revolution in Development as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of The Chronicle of Higher Education's Best Scholarly Books of 2021

Revolution in Development uncovers the surprising influence of postrevolutionary Mexico on the twentieth century's most important international economic institutions. Drawing on extensive archival research in Mexico, the United States, and Great Britain, Christy Thornton meticulously traces how Mexican officials repeatedly rallied Third World leaders to campaign for representation in global organizations and redistribution through multilateral institutions. By decentering the United States and Europe in the history of global economic governance, Revolution in Development shows how Mexican economists, diplomats, and politicians fought for more than five decades to reform…


Book cover of Sterling-Dollar Diplomacy in Current Perspective: The Origins and the Prospects of Our International Economic Order

Francine McKenzie Why did I love this book?

If you can get past the title, this book is a model for how to write about international economic diplomacy.

Gardner connects technical matters like tariffs, exchange rates, quantitative restrictions, and loans to ideology, the status of nations, and relations between states. Set in the 1940s, it follows American and British efforts to set up the IMF, World Bank, and GATT.

Although officials believed that the highest political stakes were connected to trade – the peace and security of the world were at issue – they fought constantly about trade. 

Book cover of Red Globalization: The Political Economy of the Soviet Cold War from Stalin to Khrushchev

Francine McKenzie Why did I love this book?

This revisionist book rejects the established view that the Soviet Union opted out of the global economy to develop a parallel and exclusive communist economic system.

Despite a Cold War logic in which communist and capitalist economic systems were understood to be incompatible and engaged in a zero-sum competition, Sanchez Sibony shows that Soviet officials and leaders wanted to be engaged in the global economy, at least partly. They wanted imports; they were less keen to export.

This doesn’t make the global economy less political or ideological, but it means the Cold War alone does not explain how economics and politics interacted with one another in the formulation of Soviet foreign economic policy. 

By Oscar Sanchez-Sibony,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Red Globalization as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Was the Soviet Union a superpower? Red Globalization is a significant rereading of the Cold War as an economic struggle shaped by the global economy. Oscar Sanchez-Sibony challenges the idea that the Soviet Union represented a parallel socio-economic construct to the liberal world economy. Instead he shows that the USSR, a middle-income country more often than not at the mercy of global economic forces, tracked the same path as other countries in the world, moving from 1930s autarky to the globalizing processes of the postwar period. In examining the constraints and opportunities afforded the Soviets in their engagement of the…


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Book cover of Trial, Error, and Success: 10 Insights into Realistic Knowledge, Thinking, and Emotional Intelligence

Sima Dimitrijev, PhD Author Of Trial, Error, and Success: 10 Insights into Realistic Knowledge, Thinking, and Emotional Intelligence

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Why am I passionate about this?

My core value is realistic education—learning from each other’s errors and successes, but with full awareness of the difference between the determined past and the uncertain future. We can benefit from uncertainty, which I’ve been doing for a living as an engineer, academic researcher, and inventor. I make use of knowledge and science as much as possible, but I also know that strategic decisions for the uncertain future require skepticism and thinking to deal with the differences in a new circumstance. With my core value, I am passionate about sharing insights and knowledge that our formal education does not provide.

Sima's book list on realistic knowledge and decision making

What is my book about?

Everything in nature evolves by trial, error, and success—from fundamental physics, through evolution in biology, to how people learn, think, and decide.

This book presents a way of thinking and realistic knowledge that our formal education shuns. Stepping beyond this ignorance, the book shows how to deal with and even benefit from uncertainty by skeptical thinking, strategic decisions, and teamwork based on enlightened self-interests.

This bottom-up thinking is thought-provoking for leaders who wish to build teams rather than herds. The insights in the book will help you to be better prepared for the unexpected, less likely to conform when you…

Trial, Error, and Success: 10 Insights into Realistic Knowledge, Thinking, and Emotional Intelligence

By Sima Dimitrijev, PhD, Maryann Karinch,

What is this book about?

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