Before Hegemony: Adam Smith, American Independence, and the Origins of the First Era of Globalization

: While extensive scholarship has shown that it is possible to maintain global economic openness after hegemony, economic liberalization is still thought to be unlikely prior to hegemonic ascent. This assumption is based on the conventional narrative that Great Britain “began lowering her trade barriers in the 1820s,” as it began its hegemonic ascent. This article shows that Britain began pursuing an open trading structure in the 1780s—in precisely the multipolar world that hegemonic stability theorists claimed would be least likely to initiate the shift. This change in commercial strategy depended crucially on the intellectual conversion of a key policymaker—the Earl of Shelburne—from mercantilist foreign economic policy to Adam Smith’s revolutionary laissez-faire liberalism. Using the case of “the world’s most important trading state” in the nineteenth century, this article highlights the importance of intellectuals—as well as their ideas—in shaping states’ foreign policy strategies. It also provides further evidence of key individuals’ significance and their decisions at “critical junctures.”

International Organization 66(3): 395-428.

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