Robert Freeman Smith

Reciprocity in diplomatic negotiations is a process of exchange between nations, a negotiating tool whereby nations bargain with each other for equivalent treatment. It can be either restrictive or open in nature. The restrictive form usually is embodied in a bilateral agreement between two countries and can involve privileges (or different types of treatment) that are denied to other parties, or that must be specifically bargained for by third parties. For the United States, the latter type of quasi-restrictive reciprocity was embodied in the conditional most-favored-nation principle, which was part of almost every commercial treaty negotiated between 1778 and 1922. This was not necessarily an exclusion policy, but it did require continued bargaining after an agreement was ratified, and it could lead to discriminatory practices. The term "restrictive reciprocity" also can be applied to agreements that affect only a limited number of items and leave various prohibitive discriminations intact.

Open reciprocity can be embodied either in bilateral treaties or in multilateral agreements. In general, it means that concessions granted to one nation are automatically extended to all others that have signed most-favored-nation agreements with the granting nation. Since the 1840s (and especially since the British shift to free trade), the unconditional version of the most-favored-nation principle has contributed to open reciprocity. Prior to the development of liberal trade policies, it only tended to generalize discrimination (or guarantee equality of discrimination), and in practice was as restrictive as the conditional version.

Open reciprocity is closely connected to a liberal trading system, with the emphasis on lowering barriers to international intercourse in as broad a manner as possible. Open reciprocity also applies to agreements that tend generally to abolish or modify discriminatory practices rather than provide for the privileged treatment of certain items.

The reciprocity concept has been applied to negotiations over tonnage dues on ships and goods, access to ports and rivers, access to markets, and various types of port fees and internal taxes. Starting in the eighteenth century, reciprocity negotiations also dealt with the equivalent treatment of foreign nationals, especially in matters of religious practice. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century, the meaning of reciprocity has been enlarged to include equal access to raw materials, the protection of foreign investments, aviation over flight and landing rights, treatment of tourists, and a host of financial matters involving such items as exchange controls and debt payments.

If the American concept of reciprocity only involved reciprocity as a bargaining tool, then the historical record would be one of treaty negotiations and little else. But in the historical experience of the United States, reciprocity has been more. It also has been a concept of international relations involving the breaking down of barriers to international intercourse and opposing closed or highly restrictive economic systems. Intimately related to this has been the idea of a peaceful world based upon complete reciprocity, with nations freely exchanging goods, services, and ideas. This conceptual and ideological aspect of reciprocity can be characterized as the open world schema. Bargaining reciprocity can take place, and has done so, on a matter-of-fact basis. But in the experience of the United States, it has been viewed generally as part of the larger world schema, as an instrument to help secure the broader objectives of an open world. There have been periods in American history when this relationship has been obscured or modified, as between 1860 and 1922, but overall the history of reciprocity has been a combination of diplomacy and of concept and ideal. The historical experiences and the cultural heritage of the United States have combined to give a peculiar and unique shape to the history of reciprocity in American foreign policy.

In its original format the concept of an open world of unlimited reciprocity was basically nonimperial. Many prominent leaders in the late eighteenth century broadly viewed reciprocity as rather the polar opposite of power politics, European-style mercantilism, and traditional imperialism. But in the years after American independence, the harsh realities of international politics produced modifications and compromises in the practice of reciprocity. Mercantilistic elements were introduced into American policy as part of the interplay between conflicting sectional and group ambitions and ideas of national interest. Similarly, the open world concept developed a peculiar duality during the nineteenth century. Such elements as the mercantilist idea of the need for economic and social "safety valves," perceptions of external threats, and the messianic thrust of the Redeemer Nation idea (that the United States was chosen by God to remake the world in both a religious and a secular sense) combined in the development of a restrictive and imperial version of the open world. This variant can be labeled the open-door view, and these dual versions of world order have competed and coexisted in American policy-making since the late nineteenth century. Like many historical developments, the reciprocity policies and concepts of the United States have been afflicted by ambiguity and paradox.


Bovard, James. The Fair Trade Fraud. New York, 1991. A very harsh denunciation of U.S. trade policies.

Culbertson, William Smith. Reciprocity: A National Policy for Foreign Trade. New York: London, 1937. A valuable source of information about reciprocity policy from the 1890s to the 1930s, especially good for the 1920s.

Eckes, Alfred E., Jr. Opening America's Market: U.S. Foreign Trade Policy Since 1776. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1995.

Ellis, L. Ethan. Reciprocity 1911: A Study in Canadian-American Relations. New Haven, Conn., and Toronto, 1939. An intensive study of political and economic factors in both countries.

Evans, John W. The Kennedy Round in American Trade Policy: The Twilight of the GATT? Cambridge, Mass., 1971. One of the best treatments of American commercial policy since the 1930s, although the focus is on the 1960s.

Gilbert, Felix. To The Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1961. A valuable analysis of the conflicting ideas that influenced the foreign policy concepts of the Founders; the main theme is the interaction and conflict between realism and idealism.

Hornbeck, Stanley K. "The Most-Favored-Nation Clause in Commercial Treaties: Its Function in Theory and in Practice and Its Relation to Tariff Policies." Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin. 343: Economics and Political Science series, 6, no. 2 (1910). Remains the most complete treatment of a generally ignored subject.

Kottman, Richard Norman. Reciprocity and the North Atlantic Triangle, 1932–1938. Ithaca, N.Y., 1968. One of the most detailed and well-researched discussions of the negotiations of reciprocal trade agreements with Canada and Britain.

Lovett, William A., Alfred E. Eckes, Jr., and Richard L. Brinkman. U.S. Trade Policy: History, Theory and the WTO. Armonk, N.Y., 1999. A highly critical work on recent trade policy; argues that the U.S. must be much more aggressive in pushing for true reciprocity.

Low, Patrick. Trading Free: The GATT and U.S. Trade Policy. New York, 1993. An in-depth examination of the way GATT has worked.

Ratner, Sidney. The Tariff in American History. New York, 1972. A succinct history but needs supplementing for fine points and technicalities.

Setser, Vernon G. The Commercial Reciprocity Policy of the United States, 1774–1829. Philadelphia and London, 1937. Absolutely essential to any understanding of economic foreign policy for the period; an intensive study based on multiarchival research.

Terrill, Tom E. The Tariff, Politics, and American Foreign Policy 1874–1901. Westport, Conn., 1973. A valuable analysis of economic policies and their relationship to domestic politics and economic factors.

Williams, Benjamin H. Economic Foreign Policy of the United States. New York, 1929. Still one of the best reference works for all aspects of the subject; organized topically with many details.

Zeiler, Thomas W. Free Trade, Free World: The Advent of GATT. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999.

See also Economic Policy and Theory ; Most-Favored-Nation Principle ; Open Door Policy ; Tariff Policy ; Treaties .

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