A full defence of the dependence account of grounding requires us to look at how successfully other accounts can meet the four conditions set out above: it must admit of degrees, explain the distinctly international character of trade justice, ground both procedural and distributive duties, and it must be a necessary feature of all trade relationships which plausibly generate duties of justice. A number of philosophers in recent years have tried their hand at grounding trade justice claims, with most attempting to ground them in the presence of either coercion or cooperation, mirroring a long-standing debate about what grounds egalitarian demands of domestic justice.Footnote 9 Whatever their merits in the latter context, neither coercion nor cooperation are plausible as grounding candidates in trade.
Nicole Hassoun (2012) defends an account which grounds duties in the presence of interactional coercion within trade.Footnote 10 Interactional coercion involves a threat or the use of force by one agent to make another agent worse off. For an institution to be coercive, in turn, agents who violate its rules ‘must be likely to face sanctions for the violation’ (2012, p. 50). Throughout her discussion, Hassoun adopts a non-moralised account of what coercion consists in: for her, there is nothing necessarily wrong with coercion, but it does require justification, because it obstructs individuals from living their lives as they so choose. Hassoun argues that a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for justifying as legitimate the coercion that a political institution wields is that the institution ‘must ensure that its subjects secure sufficient autonomy to autonomously consent to, or dissent from, its rules’ (2012, p. 45). Absent the ability to autonomously dissent, individuals’ acceding to a coercive institution cannot be taken as a signal of their consent.
From this premise, Hassoun believes that all those who take the importance of consent seriously must support the provision of those basic goods that are needed to secure a sufficient level of autonomy for individuals subject to coercive rule. In concrete terms, this means that coercive institutions must ensure that those subject to its rules must have enough food, water, education, and health to be able to reason about, and make, plans of some kind. Though it is not her sole focus, in the second half of her book Hassoun discusses the international trade regime at length as a site where institutions need to ensure that individuals attain sufficient autonomy, because the trade regime is ultimately coercive in character. To avoid getting too bogged down in conceptual questions over when an institution is coercive, Hassoun relies upon examples which she takes to be intuitive instances of coercion to make her case (2012, p. 69): in the context of trade, she draws attention to the imposition of sanctions as a means of enforcing states’ trade commitments to one another within organisations such as the WTO (2012, p. 70).
This basis for grounding duties of justice will fail to meet the first and fourth conditions; either that, or it will reduce to the dependence account put forward above.Footnote 11 To see this, let us imagine that the US lifts its decades-long embargo on Cuba and the two countries conclude a bilateral trade agreement, significantly reducing barriers to trade in almost all goods and services. As a result of this liberalisation, the US soon becomes Cuba’s single most important trading partner, accounting for 55% of its exports, consisting mostly of sugar. Given the size of the two economies, Cuba becomes only a minor trade partner for the US. For Cuba, rejecting the trade agreement would have meant foregoing sizeable economic benefits. Still, for present purposes, let us assume they were doing a good enough job of securing their citizens’ basic needs before the agreement, so that we can say that their participation is voluntary in a meaningful sense. Because the US has a long-standing distaste for submitting to authoritative international judicial bodies, the two states agree that the agreement will not be subject to formal enforcement mechanisms; where disputes arise, the US and Cuba will conduct an informal settlement process to determine what ought to be done to resolve the matter.
Note a few features of the US and Cuba’s relationship after concluding this agreement. The US can now use its new-found leverage to push Cuba into making more far-reaching domestic reforms in line with US interests, or alternatively, it could set Cuba’s interests back by simply refusing to adhere to the agreement’s terms, knowing that it would be very costly (and ineffective) for Cuba to try to retaliate. The US could also harm Cuba simply through neglect, failing to take Cuba’s dependence into account during domestic decision-making (for example, when deciding whether to impose a tax on sugary drinks). Finally, the US could cause great hardship by giving another state, say Brazil, even more favourable terms of market access, undercutting the gains Cuba thought it had secured and had come to be strongly dependent upon. In such cases, even where the US abides by the terms of their agreement, circumstances may change (and may be changed by the US) in such a way that the US still receives all the expected benefits from the trade agreement with Cuba, while Cuba’s prospective benefits end up being eroded. Recalling that Cuba has its own demanding set of duties to discharge towards its own inhabitants, I think that we would want to say that, as per the first of our four conditions, how the US acts in the context of its newly instituted trade relations with Cuba is subject to certain duties of justice, more demanding than whatever duties it had previously. This is so even though there is no enforcement mechanism binding the two states to the agreement.
One response the coercion account theorist can give is to claim that what matters is not that states are authorised to coerce one another, but that states have the power to coerce one another. Yet this response will ultimately reduce to the dependence account put forward above. What gives the US the power to coerce Cuba in this case is the fact that the US can refuse to play the role that Cuba has come to depend upon. Over time, an increasing chunk of Cuba’s economic activity has been geared towards servicing the preferences and needs of the US; employment patterns, investment decisions, skills development may all have been impacted by, and made vulnerable as a result of, integration with the US. Cuba’s dependence entails that the costs of exit may now be extraordinarily high in political, social, and economic terms. And, as suggested above, our moral concern with how the US relates to Cuba extends beyond whether the US coerces Cuba; insofar as neglect of its interests or undercutting its competitiveness would also thwart Cuba’s ability to discharge its duties, this alone generates duties on the US’s part.
Another sort of coercion-based account grounds duties of trade justice in systemic coercion (Valentini 2011; Suttle 2017). For Laura Valentini, a system of rules is coercive ‘if it foreseeably and avoidably places nontrivial constraints on some agents’ freedom, compared to their freedom in the absence of that system’ (Valentini 2011, p. 137). The rules in question can be formal or informal, and a system of rules could regulate anything from complex organisations to everyday patterns of social interaction. For Valentini, the baseline against which we judge whether an individual’s freedom is constrained by a system is whether there is a possible alternative system where they would have greater freedom. Given this, more or less all imaginable systems are coercive for at least some agents. For Oisin Suttle, a system is coercive so long as agents within it are non-voluntarily subjected to institutions which determine how benefits and burdens are distributed within a scheme of social cooperation. A system can thus be coercive even if no agent is made worse off by their subjection to that system. On this picture, ‘even under ideal conditions, the international order is necessarily coercive’ (Suttle 2017, p. 82).
On either Valentini’s or Suttle’s version, systemic coercion will be a feature of all trade relationships: trade creates winners and losers, and more or less all individuals will be affected, directly or indirectly, by the terms on which their state integrates into the international economy. Therefore, such accounts unproblematically meet our fourth condition. They may also meet the third condition, although moving from the very general claim that a system places constraints on agents to one that assigns particular duties to agents within the system will require a lot of work. However, systemic coercion accounts cannot satisfactorily meet the first and second conditions, for the very same reason that they so evidently meet the fourth. Systemic coercion cannot admit of degrees insofar as it is a feature of any possible iteration of a trade regime. While Valentini and Suttle can both use their conceptual framework to distinguish a world with a trade regime from a world where states are entirely autarkic (Valentini 2011, pp. 187–189; and Suttle 2017, pp. 96–103, p. 108), they cannot distinguish between a world with low levels of trade and a world with highly intensive trade of the sort which generates strong interdependence: in both cases, there is a trade system with rules to which agents are subject, and at least some of those agents will be worse off than they would be under an alternative system. For instance, a world where states confined their trading to luxury goods such as diamonds and Renaissance paintings would come out as systemically coercive of all individuals in all participating states, if only because many agents would be much better off under an alternative arrangement where there was trade in a much wider range of goods. Similarly, in the imagined case discussed above, the systemic coercion account cannot explain why anything about the US’s and Cuba’s obligations towards one another change once they sign their trade agreement: both countries’ inhabitants are non-voluntarily subjected to a trade system before the agreement, and they remain so afterwards.
Valentini’s and Suttle’s accounts also fail to meet the second condition because they both ultimately lend themselves to cosmopolitanism rather than internationalism. They do so for different reasons. Valentini attempts to develop an internationalist picture of justice through combining both statist principles and cosmopolitan principles. On her view, the principles grounded in the systemic coercion of the global economy supplement a set of broadly statist principles which regulate states’ duties towards their own citizens and their duties of non-interference towards one another. What is required in order to make global systemic coercion justified, in turn, is the creation of a set of ‘international or global institutions capable of effectively regulating the international economy in such a way as to make it compatible with everyone’s freedom’ (Valentini 2011, p. 198). In her subsequent discussion, Valentini attempts to stop this requirement from slipping into outright cosmopolitanism by framing the role of these institutions in terms of how they ought to treat states, i.e. states ought to be given the ability and opportunity to develop and thereby secure their inhabitants’ freedom. However, as Simon Cotton has pointed out (2014), framing the justification of these global institutions in terms of how they treat states is at odds with the systemic coercion view, where each individual coerced by the system is owed a justification. Where the structure of the trade regime must be justified directly to all coerced individuals, it is difficult to imagine any individual would accept a system where they were significantly worse-off than any other individual due, say, to their own state’s relative profligacy. Ultimately, it does not seem like the systemic coercion view can ‘resist the pull of a demanding cosmopolitanism’ (Cotton 2014, p. 370).
Suttle attempts to avoid the cosmopolitan implications of grounding duties in systemic coercion by focusing on states’ particular policies as the primary target to be evaluated by principles of trade justice. While the trade regime as a whole is systemically coercive, it is also the case that states’ policies are systemically coercive, insofar as they non-voluntarily subject agents (both domestic and international) to their effects. And, Suttle argues, because states are the primary actors in trade, our theory of trade justice ought to be primarily concerned with the justification of states’ coercive acts. Once Suttle acknowledges the special significance of states, the rest of his exposition focuses on how their trade policy measures are to be justified, where different standards apply depending on who the state intends to target with any given policy (2017, pp. 86–96). Where a state’s policy measures intentionally target domestic inhabitants (e.g. healthcare reform, education policy), they require less demanding justification to affected outsiders than measures which the state uses to intentionally regulate international economic activity (e.g. measures such as tariffs or export subsidies).
The key problem Suttle’s account faces is that if systemic coercion is what grounds demands of justice, then all individuals subjected to the system are owed a justification for the nature of the system as a whole. So understood, a state would owe outsiders justification not only for the particular policies they enact, but also for all the policies which they fail to enact. In concrete terms, individuals would be owed a justification for the overall distribution of holdings within the international scheme of social cooperation of which they are a part.Footnote 12 If systemic coercion were the feature which grounded duties of justice in trade, the trade regime would have to be justified to all affected individuals, and again here the justification would have to be more or less cosmopolitan in character. In different ways, then, both Suttle’s and Valentini’s accounts inevitably treat the properly international nature of trade as a cosmopolitan practice; this is so regardless of the actual shape, intensity, or design of the trade regime in question.
The other major approach grounds duties of trade justice in cooperation between states. This view is most prominently defended by Aaron James (2012).Footnote 13 For James, trade understood merely as exchanges across borders at the transactional level is not the sort of thing that grounds duties of justice. Instead, it is the existence of a social practice of ‘mutual market reliance’, cooperatively upheld by states, that grounds such duties (2012, p. 17). States engage in a practice of mutual market reliance by providing assurances to one another concerning their reliability as trading partners, not only through compliance with explicit rules, but also through the promotion, refinement, and management of these rules (and their underlying assumptions) within forums such as the WTO. The reason that states do this is that they share a common purpose, namely the mutual augmentation of national income. According to James, even though states often adopt an outwardly competitive stance when bargaining with one another in trade, he believes this is mutually acceptable to participating states because it is underpinned by a shared view along the lines of ‘We both know that cutting such-and-such tariffs is win–win’ (2012, p. 41). James believes that the unilateral case that economists make for trade liberalisation (i.e. that each state would be better off liberalising its own trade regardless of the behaviour and policies of other states) fails to map onto real world economic circumstances, ignoring states’ concerns both for the distributional effects of trade, as well as their need for assurance that their reliance on international trade will not leave them vulnerable. Therefore, states must cooperate in order to create a stable international economic environment wherein trade can flourish. And it is the cooperative scheme that states uphold and manage which is the site of trade justice principles.
It is worth commenting on the relationship between this cooperative account and the dependence account I endorse. We might say that reliance is synonymic with dependence, and that the key grounding feature of both these accounts is the same. But, while much of James’s insights are indeed conducive to the dependence account, there are a few important points where the two accounts diverge. To see this, it is helpful to distinguish between interdependence and cooperation. When two agents are interdependent, both agents play an integral role in the realisation of one another’s separate goals. This contrasts with cooperation, where both agents share a common goal. The separability of interdependent agents’ goals entails that their interests may pull in opposite directions; thus, an agent’s realisation of their goals may be thwarted by the other agent’s attempt to realise their own goals. An interdependent relationship can, of course, at times be characterised by cooperative elements, where the interdependent agents would benefit from working with one another. However, the interdependent account also allows that there will be times where the two agents will be in competition with one another, where the goals they hope to realise pull in opposite directions. Competitive tussles between interdependent agents will not always be undergirded by a background assumption of a win–win scenario; there may be genuinely zero-sum games.
While both James’s account and my own could be framed in terms of reliance, it should be clear from the above that James’s account is a cooperation-based account, rather than a dependence account. How well does the cooperative account meet the four conditions? I believe it can meet the first condition. James’s own version of the account specifies that the demands of justice only apply to agents who pass some threshold of integration, and thus contribute meaningfully to the gains from inter-state cooperation (2012, p. 178). Other cooperation-based accounts might meet this condition differently; for instance, one might develop an account wherein participation in some cooperative schemes (e.g. the WTO) entails less demanding duties than participation in others (e.g. the EU). The cooperation approach can also ground suitably international principles of justice. States’ role as duty-bearers towards their inhabitants is untouched in this picture, but through their participation in trade states assume additional duties towards other states. This is so because the gains from trade are the product of inter-state cooperation, and all states are entitled to a fair share of that which they helped to generate.
The cooperation account, however, struggles to meet the last two conditions. First, while a cooperation account can ground distributive demands, it is not conducive to grounding any robust procedural demands in trade; insofar as states have a shared goal within the practice, the extent to which some agents play more of a role in shaping decisions is treated at best as a secondary concern. Where one institutional design is more effective at bringing about this shared goal than others, the fact that the goal is indeed shared suggests participants will all have reasons for endorsing this design, regardless of each state’s level of participation. This is reflected in James’s claim that the ‘appropriate form of trade governance is largely if not entirely an instrumental matter: everything depends on what is most likely to induce reforms in the direction of structural equity in the trade practice overall’ (James 2012, p. 90), where equity is ‘assessed in light of that practice’s distributional consequences’ (p. 35). However, fair treatment also involves recognising states as collective bodies entitled to shape the terms of their own integration. The fact that states were effectively coerced into signing the agreement which created the WTO, for example, by US and EU threats to rescind market access upon which these other states had come to depend, is morally objectionable over and above the distributive effects of the agreement itself (see Steinberg 2002). The need to ensure that collective decisions are not coercively imposed but are instead taken in a fair manner, taking the voices of all relevant parties into account, is itself a demand of trade justice.
In this sense, cooperation is likely better thought of as a principle, rather than a ground, of trade justice. This explains why the cooperation account fails to meet the fourth condition. Even if most trade relationships involve some degree of cooperation, we should not take this as a necessary requirement in order for duties of justice to apply in trade. While James argues that the economic case for unilateral liberalisation overlooks important realities about how states operate, we can nevertheless imagine a world where unilateral liberalisation did lead to substantial international integration. In such a world, states’ domestic policy, and any policy they took towards international trade (e.g. providing export subsidies to strategic industries) could have significant effects on other states. Where their policies could thwart other states’ ability to discharge their respective duties of domestic justice, how each state acts in such contexts is of deep moral significance. This is so, regardless of whether any of the states in question could be thought of as cooperative partners. Having said that, where states are implicated in one another’s abilities to discharge duties, it may be the case that they have an obligation to become cooperative partners, if this is necessary in order to ensure that their interdependence is dependable, and that trade partners reliably fulfil their duties to one another. If this is correct, we might follow Abizadeh in calling cooperation is a ‘constitutive condition’ of justice, rather than an ‘existence condition’ (2007, p. 324); the presence of cooperation is a part of what is required by justice, rather than something which itself grounds duties of justice.