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Impact of the World Economy, World Trade Organization (WTO) and Its Predecessors

Marshall Plan, North American Free Trade Agreement, GATT, trade barriers, World Trade Organization

As World War II drew to a close, leaders in the United States and other Western nations began working to promote freer trade for the post-war world. They set up the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1944 to stabilize exchange rates across member nations. The Marshall Plan, developed by U.S. general and economist George Marshall, promoted free trade. It gave U.S. aid to European nations rebuilding after the war, provided those nations reduced tariffs and other trade barriers.

In 1947 the United States and many of its allies signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was especially successful in reducing tariffs over the next five decades. In 1995 the member nations of the GATT founded the World Trade Organization (WTO), which set even greater obligations on member countries to follow the rules established under GATT. It also established procedures and organizations to deal with disputes among member nations about the trading policies adopted by individual nations.

In 1992 the United States also signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with its closest neighbors and major trading partners, Canada and Mexico. The provisions of this agreement took effect in 1994. Since then, studies by economists have found that NAFTA has benefited all three nations, although greater competition has resulted in some factories closing. As a percentage of national income, the benefits from NAFTA have been greater in Canada and Mexico than in the United States, because international trade represents a larger part of those economies. While the United States is the largest trading nation in the world, it has a very large and prosperous domestic economy; therefore international trade is a much smaller percentage of the U.S. economy than it is in many countries with much smaller domestic economies.

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