International Organization

Why the Move to Free Trade? Democracy and Trade Policy in the Developing Countries

Helen V.  Milner  and Keiko  Kubota  a1
a1 Keiko Kubota is Research Assistant at the World Bank. She can be reached at

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Rising international trade flows are a primary component of globalization. The liberalization of trade policy in many developing countries has helped foster the growth of these flows. Preceding and concurrent with this move to free trade, there has been a global movement toward democracy. We argue that these two trends are related: democratization of the political system reduces the ability of governments to use trade barriers as a strategy for building political support. Political leaders in labor-rich countries may prefer lower trade barriers as democracy increases. Empirical evidence supports our claim about the developing countries from 1970–99. Regime change toward democracy is associated with trade liberalization, controlling for many factors. Conventional explanations of economic reform, such as economic crises and external pressures, seem less salient. Democratization may have fostered globalization in this period. a


a We wish to thank the editors at International Organization, David Baldwin, Jim Fearon, Geoffrey Garrett, Barbara Geddes, Tim Groseclose, Robert Kaufmann, Robert Keohane, David Laitin, Jean Leca, Edward Mansfield, Jim Morrow, Ronald Rogowski, B. Peter Rosendorff, Alex Segura, Mike Tomz, Robert Trager, Romain Wacziarg, and Greg Wawro, for their very helpful comments on versions of this article. We also received helpful comments from seminar participants at the University of Michigan, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, Princeton University, Rutgers University, Yale University, and the University of California at Berkeley. Ben Judkins, Robert Trager, Megumi Naoi, and Tom Kenyon provided invaluable research assistance. An earlier version was presented at the 2001 APSA meeting in San Francisco.