Global Governance Institute


Sweet Talk: Paternalism and Collective Action in North-South Trade Relations

8 February 2017

Julia Kreienkamp (GGI Research Assistant) on the GGI keynote lecture with Professor J.P. Singh.

J.P. Singh: Sweet Talk

Developed nations strive to give the impression that trade relations are governed through their benevolence and empathy towards the developing world. The empirics, however, tell a different story: Developed nations hardly ever make reciprocal trade concessions towards the Global South and they offer only few 'benevolent', non-reciprocal concessions. What explains this gap between rhetoric and reality?

At a recent keynote lecture, jointly hosted by the Global Governance Institute (GGI) and the UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP), Professor J.P. Singh argued that international trade relations continue to be permeated with a paternalistic, often racist discourse. Singh, who is Chair of Culture and Political Economy as well as Director of the Centre for Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh, presented the findings of his new book Sweet Talk: Paternalism and Collective Action in North-South Relations. Using a mixed-method approach, Sweet Talk seeks to demonstrate how developed states continue to act paternalistic towards the developing world while giving little in trade negotiations.

The Need to Look at the Role of Racism in International Trade

Racism is an issue largely ignored both in International Relations (IR) and International Political Economy (IPE). Although the very origins of IR are arguably deeply intertwined with colonialism and race relations, the Academy - with a few notable exceptions - has rarely engaged with these concerns. If you ask how racism affects trade, Singh said, you risk getting "laughed out of the room." But is this question really so ridiculous? And are there alternative explanations for the profound lack of reciprocal trade concessions towards the Global South? Indeed there are, Singh argued, however they do not hold up to empirical scrutiny.

Strategic trade theory, for example, would predict that developed countries only negotiate reciprocal concessions with large markets and principal suppliers in the Global South. That, however, is simply not the case. To the contrary, the US and the EU appear to actively resist making reciprocal trade concessions to countries such as China, India and Brazil. Equally unconvincing is the security version of strategic trade theory, which would predict that reciprocal concessions are only made to important allies, with some 'benevolence' shown towards small, but strategically important states. Again, the empirics do not confirm this thesis. Strategic allies, Singh concluded, "only matter if they are prosperous".

Finally, it has been argued that the North shows 'benevolence' towards the South not by making reciprocal concessions but by making non-reciprocal ones, for example granting preferential treatment for agricultural and textile products. However, these concessions are negligible. Historical context also matters: According to Singh, it was the former colonial powers that argued for non-reciprocal trade concessions in the 1940s and -50s, not the former colonies. The latter rightly feared that preferential treatment would consolidate and reinforce existing dependencies and hamper economic diversification. Now that developing countries are locked into these dependencies, they have no choice but to seek the continuation of preferential treatment for certain products.   

Studying Trade Preferences Through a Cultural Lens

Trade preferences, Singh argued, are not just about economic and strategic interests - they are also culturally constituted.  The profound lack of non-reciprocal trade concessions towards the Global South is directly related to the North's paternalism, defined by Singh as a patronising, seemingly 'benevolent' discourse resulting from a position of economic and political strength and cultural distance. In order to give analytical rigor to this claim, Sweet Talk uses a combination of quantitative analysis, historical process tracing, macro and micro case studies.

For his quantitative analysis, Singh put together a 'Paternalism Strength Index' (PSI) which measures variables such as export market diversification, ability to influence the voting behaviour of other countries in the UN General Assembly, as well as cultural distance from the former European colonies. He found that there is a clear correlation between the PSI and the ability to receive concessions confirming that that 'paternalistic strength' matters when it comes to trade negotiations.

Another original empirical data set used in the book contains over ten years of press releases from the US Trade Representative's Office (USTR) coded for 'paternalistic references'. Singh found that 93% of these references were made toward the developing world. Looking specifically at agriculture, 60% of the references towards the developing world were paternalistic compared to 14% for OECD countries. These findings confirm that paternalism is indeed directed towards developing countries: It stems from a position of economic and political power and cultural distance.

But how exactly does paternalism inform trade negotiations? And how can we explain that some trade concessions, both reciprocal and non-reciprocal, have nevertheless been made? According to Singh, the negotiation strategy of the Global North combines 'sweet talk' and moral statements with open deceit, manipulation, and racist arguments aimed at keeping out exports of developing countries (often disguised as concerns about 'standards'). Developed countries are willing to make limited concessions such as side payments, capacity-building assistance or foreign aid. At the same time, they maintain protections on products in which the Global South has a competitive advantage, in particular agricultural products.

If developing countries are nevertheless successful in getting concessions, it is the result of hard-fought negotiations - not 'paternalistic benevolence'. Negotiation strength, Singh's analysis shows, is positively related to reciprocity. He also found that a decisive factor determining a country's negotiations strength is the ability to leverage a diversified trade portfolio. Export market diversification, then, might be the best available strategy for developing countries to receive more trade concessions. That, of course, is easier said than done for a developing country with a high dependence on the export of a few primary products.

'Paternalistic Benevolence' is a Myth

Singh's lecture offered interesting insights into the relationship between paternalism and racism: Paternalism, though patronising, invokes 'benevolent authority': "We know what is best for you." Racism, in contrast, usually entails negative discrimination based on race and/or cultural difference. Singh's study reveals that there is nothing 'benevolent' about paternalism in international trade relations; rather paternalistic rhetoric is used to cover up discriminatory, racist action.

While Singh made a convincing case using a lot of original data, it would have been interesting to learn more about how exactly paternalism is produced and reproduced through language and practice, for example by looking at some concrete examples of 'paternalistic references' in USTR press releases. If this is accomplished in the book, Sweet Talk can open up important avenues to rethink how IR and IPE deal with racism. It is certainly a timely contribution to the renewed debate about trade protectionism on both sides of the Atlantic.