Trade is never free. Actually existing global markets are always and everywhere facilitated and constrained by laws, treaties, regulations, and the vagaries of bureaucracy. (And I write this as a realist about bureaucracy. The rule of the desk-bound is always tedious, often frustrating, and not infrequently in some or other way corrupted. But it is nonetheless greatly to be preferred to the rule of marauding bands of children with guns or laptops.)

The choice is not between free and fair trade. It is sometimes between obviously fair and blatantly unfair trade. But more often it is between maybe-a-little-more-fair and perhaps-a-little-less-unfair trade. The arrangements allowing for international trade are complicated, involve multiple legitimate (and yet sometimes incommensurable) interests, and are profoundly affected by the different political visions and economic theories to which the various participants subscribe.

Moral discourse about matters of international trade, as a result, demand a thoroughgoing understanding of its practice (preferably earned during years of experience in commercial activity), clear-sightedness with regard to its politics, and a depth of reading into its theory. Since I hardly meet any of these criteria I am not really to be trusted as a commentator on the current conflict between the USA and South Africa over chicken imports. But I’m going to guess that no-one else is going to write about the chicken wars in Providence, and since trade between America and Africa involve matters of profound moral significance, I’m going to go ahead and blunder into the quagmire.

On November 5, President Obama sent a letter to Congress that starts out as follows: “In accordance with sections 506A(d)(4)(C) and 506A(c) of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), I am providing 60-day advance notification of my intent to suspend the application of duty-free treatment to all AGOA-eligible goods in the agricultural sector for the Republic of South Africa 60 days after the date of this notification.”

President Obama’s letter was a response to South Africa not meeting one of the eligibility criteria for preferential treatment in terms of AGOA, namely “the elimination of barriers to United States trade and investment.” Between 2000 (the year AGOA began to have effect) and 2014, South Africa establish various barriers to the import from the USA of chicken, beef, and pork products, usually giving as its reasons concerns about outbreaks of animal diseases, and eventually resulting in almost completely blocking all such imports. Despite agreeing in negotiations in June of this year to lift some of these import restrictions, by November South Africa had not yet created the legal conditions that would give effect to the June agreements, resulting in President Obama’s letter.

The consequences for South Africa of losing duty-free import privileges to the USA would be significant: in 2014, South Africa exported goods to the USA under AGOA to the value of $1.7 billion. President Obama’s November 5 threat was effective: on November 13 the two governments signed the “Protocol for Poultry Meat and Day-Old Chicks,” which addressed South African concerns about avian flu, lifted some restrictions on American poultry imports to South Africa while establishing an annual quota of 65,000 tons for such imports, and depending on follow-through by the South African government reduced the likelihood that President Obama will make good on his threat come January.

Why does the U.S.-South African Chicken War matter? More particularly, why should it matter to American readers of a journal about Christianity and American foreign policy? After all, this is not a matter involving terrorist bombs or American boots on foreign soil. Instead we are talking about things like American chicken feet and heads (spiced and barbequed as “walkie-talkie,” a tasty delicacy for some South Africans), “waste products” left over after poultry farmers have already met their profit margins from white meat sold within the USA and then exported to foreign markets.

I want to suggest that at the intersection of Christianity and American foreign policy, trade matters as much as war. While war is a negative means to justice when it restrains evil and establishes a more justly ordered peace, trade is a positive means to justice when it enables enterprise and effort to open up opportunity for economic flourishing. Well-ordered international trade saves lives and opens up life chances on the scale of billions of people: as the United Nations reports, “globally, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half, falling from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015.”

According to the World Bank, “in countries where financial sectors are deep, education levels high, and governance strong,” much of that change is the result of improved international trade.


Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies


photo credit: The Rooster is in public domain via Wikipedia Commons