Thomas W. Zeiler
The tariff has been a central issue throughout American history. Its importance evolved over the decades, involving politics, economics, diplomacy, and ideology. Long a source of national revenue, the tariff (or duty or customs)—a tax levied on goods imported into the United States—was critical to the domestic economy and at the center of debates over government intervention in the marketplace. Tariff policy was also embedded in the diplomacy of the United States from its birth. From independence to globalization, tariff policy indicated the direction of U.S. foreign policy toward a particular nation or bloc of countries. It could be used as a defensive tool, a coercive weapon, or as a facilitator of cooperation and unity.
Because one of the top concerns of the United States has been the preservation and expansion of commerce, debates over the nature and uses of tariff policy were considerations in economic diplomacy, which itself undergirded political, military, and ideological aspects of American foreign affairs. Yet a constant theme underlay tariff policy, whatever its target. The United States always pushed for trade liberalization, a tariff policy designed to lower duty rates moderately while protecting certain producers (as opposed to free trade, which aimed to remove all barriers to trade). This was carried out on behalf of the country's economic and political self-interests, but increasingly, through the decades, as a means to instill in the world America's capitalist, open-door ideology as well as to enhance global stability. Tariff policy served diplomacy.
It is evident that the use of tariff policy changed during the course of American history. Until the Civil War, tariffs defended the United States from European imperialism and protected infant industries. After 1865 until World War I, a transition occurred in which policymakers tied the tariff closer to expansionist, big-power diplomacy, although a protectionist Congress restrained these efforts. During the interwar period, the more assertive brand of protectionism had its last gasp, as the Great Depression brought attempts at freer trade to a halt. During World War II and the Cold War, the United States became the global leader of trade liberalization. Although protectionism did not disappear, a freer trade policy united the Western alliance against communism. Successive administrations promoted low tariffs to boost the prosperity, and hence political stability and loyalty, of allies. By the 1970s, tariff policy had dwindled in importance as duties themselves fell to negligible levels and nontariff barriers became more significant. Over the course of U.S. history, therefore, the role of tariff policy in the diplomatic arena progressively changed from being a tool of national survival to one of international integration.
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