Since the founding of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, governments have acknowledged the perils of protectionism and the importance of reducing trade barriers to create sustainable conditions for economic growth. Yet, to this day, most governments remain unwilling to dispense with protectionism entirely. Under GATT and World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, governments are permitted to raise tariffs, conditionally, in response to things like “unfair” trade practices or unexpected import surges that injure or threaten to injure domestic industries, public health or safety concerns, or national security threats.
As compelling as the economic and moral arguments for free trade are, governments would never consider tariff reduction a higher priority than their obligations to protect national security. So, in 1947, a massive — but necessary — loophole was born with the GATT. Article XXI of the GATT is known as the “National Security Exception.” It permits members to impose trade restrictions for purposes of national security without obligating them to demonstrate that their rationale conforms with some agreed definition of national security or national security threats. The key to this loophole not being abused is recognition by all parties that prudence — not political expediency — must inform any government’s decision to invoke national security as its reason for raising trade barriers.
Legal scholar Roger Alford put it this way in a 2011 law review article: