When G20 Leaders first met 10 years ago one of their initial decisions was to forswear protectionism. So long as no major trading nation repeated 1930s-style tariff hikes, G20 governments claimed victory. On the ground the reality was different. Over the past 10 years, G20 governments favoured domestic firms with all manner of policies on 9,041 occasions—on average a G20 government harms foreign commercial interests every 10 hours. This year alone the G20 has taken 794 harmful acts. Very little of this policy intervention grabbed headlines. Covert unilateralism was the modus operandi.
The polite fiction of G20 compliance with its protectionist pledge became untenable with the implementation of the Trump Administration’s America First policy. The ongoing Sino-US tariff war is a consequence and casts a pall over this year’s G20 Leaders’ Summit. The meeting expected between Presidents Trump and Xi may indicate whether trade frictions deteriorate further. Rather than speculate this report puts the Sino-US tariff war in perspective, assessing the scale and impact of American brazen unilateralism. We matched up detailed data on trade policy changes worldwide with monthly trade data, drew upon insights from 17 recent analyses of contemporary trade wars, and extracted lessons for today’s trade turmoil from the 1980s and 1990s US approach of Aggressive Unilateralism towards its trading partners.