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Grozoubinski: Talking trade to grown-ups 

Writing a 300-page book on international trade policy issues in a way that is not only accessible but also entertaining would be a serious challenge for most authors. Dmitry Grozoubinski’s new book, ‘Why Politicians Lie About Trade’ rises to that challenge. 

Borderlex interviewed Grozoubinski about his motives for writing the book, being fair to politicians and about what he learned from the writing experience. 

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Dmitry Grozoubinski, former Australian trade negotiator and current executive director of the Geneva Trade Platform.

Dmitry Grozoubinski is a former Australian trade negotiator who is now the executive director of the Geneva Trade Platform think-tank. He has become well-known for his social media commentaries on trade policy. 

This book combines the author’s deep knowledge and trademark dry humour to sketch out not only how trade policy works, but also how it interacts with – in the author’s own words – “the things you may actually care about”. 

The first half of the book is a primer on trade policy, with chapters covering topics such as goods, services, free trade agreements and the World Trade Organization. 

The second part addresses a number of currently topical issues for trade policy practitioners, notably national security and climate change.  

The volume avoids academic and technical jargon and seeks to engage readers who have some modicum of interest in politics and economics. 

Grozoubinski’s stated aim is to enable a more informed debate about trade, and in particular the trade-offs involved in trade policy choices. 

The core premise of the book is that basic knowledge of some core principles of international trade can be an important bulwark against exaggerated and unhelpful claims made by those in charge. 

“You don’t need to know the details, you need to know that there are details, and how they could be important,” says the book’s preface. 

“That shields you from opportunistic politicians relying on the density of the subject matter to peddle easy answers, simple narratives and misleading twaddle. Moreover, it can also equip you with the right questions to puncture the inflated rhetoric of political chancers.” 

Borderlex: Your book feels like it’s been a long time in the making. What gave you the idea to write a book in the first place?  

Grozoubinski: Initially I was approached by an academic publisher to write a book about trade. But I only got about three chapters into it. I was trying to be formal but also accessible – and I felt I wasn’t succeeding at either. 

When Canbury Press approached me, they said they wanted a book that was written in my own voice. It was an opportunity to put down on paper some of the issues that I felt people had misconceptions about and were being misrepresented in a harmful way. 

This is not a handbook on the economics of trade. It’s more of a primer on the politics of trade. Do you feel that there’s a gap in that particular market?  

I do think there is something of a gap in the market.  

Trade is now a far larger part of the political conversation in many contexts. There is the Brexit debate in the United Kingdom, obviously, but also a broader debate around trade in combination with national security and climate change. People are just talking about it a lot more.  

Once politicians are constantly referencing trade, it becomes a salient part of how voters make decisions.  

At that point, a knowledge gap becomes dangerous to democracy. 

In the title of the book, you make the striking claim that politicians lie about trade. How widespread is this phenomenon?  

It depends on your definition of the word ‘lying’. 

In almost all statements about trade you’ll find attempts to minimise the choices involved and present a policy or an outcome or a decision as either having no downsides at all, or being the only rational choice.  

When I call this a lie, I am basically saying that this is an intentional attempt to give the public an incomplete picture, or a failure on the part of the person speaking to learn the picture themselves before taking to a podium. 

Politics is a complex business, and politicians have to ‘sell’ the policy decisions they make. Are you being hard on the people who have to make these decisions? 

Honestly, I reject that view. I think that’s an infantilising way to look at the public.  

If a politician got up on stage and said, ‘these are the trade-offs we are making’, I legitimately think the public would have more appetite for that than politicians sometimes assume they would.  

Politicians are never going to give you completely transparent accounting of their decision-making.  

But I think we can move significantly beyond ‘unicornism’ – pretending that you’re not choosing between two options that have winners and losers, upsides and downsides.  

One can talk to the public in a way that’s a little more grown-up than we currently see.  

Is the book targeted primarily at a UK audience – given the experience of Brexit and the UK’s creation of a new trade policy virtually from scratch? 

I think that’s fair. The only reason I was given the opportunity to write a book at all is because of my peripheral role in commenting on that Brexit debate, so it certainly shaped a lot of my experiences engaging with this topic.  

The UK was an extreme and advanced case of trade policy making it into the news. But it is not the sole case, and it will not be the final case.  

As we grapple with environmental challenges, with national security, with re-industrialisation, you’re seeing those big debates repeated to some extent all over the world. 

The word ‘Brexit’ appears in the book about four times. I certainly don’t re-litigate Brexit. But for me, the episode was a really vivid illustration of the problem, played out for much higher stakes than you would normally get, because of the fact that you were dismantling an existing relationship [with the EU].  

You point out in the book that trade hit the headlines towards the late 2010s. What was it about that moment that made so many more people suddenly become trade ‘experts’?  

There was a confluence of factors during the United States Trump presidency in 2016-2020. 

What we call the multilateral trading system is built on a combination of international law and norms. People respect the rules because it makes trading across borders more predictable.  

One of the defining features about Trump is that he has far less fidelity to norms and institutions than his predecessors had. His question is: ‘Well, who exactly is going to stop me?’  

That’s part of the equation. But you also can’t look past the US-China rivalry.  

In about the late 2010s we saw the emergence of a much more assertive China, and a perception on the part of the US that China will be a geostrategic foe for the next century. It suddenly started to matter a great deal where your imports are coming from – and that hurt the system.  

There’s been an increased polarisation among voters in many places. Trade policy is very tempting to mine for applause lines and for policies that look decisive.  

Trade offers a strong incentive to find ways to aggressively differentiate yourself from your political rivals in ways that tell a story about how you’re standing with your own public against unnamed others. 

Trade policy is a phenomenal well to plumb for the ‘us vs. them’ tool.  

Has the public become more immune to unhelpful commentary about trade?  

I think certainly the UK public is a significantly more sophisticated consumer of trade news than it was in 2017 – 2018 when I first started engaging with the British public debate. Trade policy was in the news every single day for about five years.  

But the same is not true for the rest of the world, which hasn’t had quite as much of this experience.  

One of the matters I keep returning to in the book is that it is the role of those in a position to interrogate power to try to push politicians and other actors to be very clear in defining their terms and defining what they would like to be measured against. 

It becomes even more important to force politicians to speak in concrete terms: to identify the problem they’re trying to solve, to identify the measures, to explain why the measures they’re taking will solve the problem, and to define what a win looks like, so that you can hold them to account. 

Did writing this book give you any new insights into the politics of trade? 

I learnt a lot from writing this book.  

It was useful for me to think about the choices facing ministries and ministers in how they communicate. 

If you are drafting a statement in the face of a lot of unknowns, how do you talk about an agreement that probably won’t start having any measurable effect for several years, and the effects of which will be naturally difficult to see against the backdrop of a thousand other things happening in the economy? 

So it was useful for me to sit back and say: ‘Well, it’s easy to criticise this from the sidelines, but what could you say?’  

Imagine a press release that claims that a memorandum of understanding with a US state that contains no binding language at all represents the greatest achievement in human civilization.  

If I were to draft that in a way that still champions the achievement, but that I could still be comfortable with – well, what would that look like? Developing that kind of empathy was a useful process for me to go through.  

Do you have any ideas for a follow-up?  

If I were ever to do a revised and expanded edition of this book, I think it would be interesting to work with others to dive into some of the areas of the book where people have had a lot of questions and interest. 

I would bring in someone from the security space to work with me – to keep that accessible style, but to really delve into the choices currently being made. Similarly on climate change. 

In order to go deeper on any of those issues, I think I would certainly need to partner up with a specialist rather than a charming chancer, which is the best I can ever aspire to be! 

Why Politicians Lie About Trade’ by Dmitry Grozoubinski is published by Canbury Press on Thursday 23 May. 

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