TIME Economy

What Today’s Trade-Deal Negotiators Could Learn From History

Marco Polo
Print Collector/Getty Images Marco Polo sailing from Venice in 1271. From a late 15th century illuminated manuscript in the collection of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The history of trade is one of merchants bending the rules. Governments would be wise to let them

History Today logoThis post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at HistoryToday.com.

 

Plucky merchants, circumventing or breaking the rules, have promoted trade down the ages – governments, for the most part, have hindered it. At a time when negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are at an impasse, governments on both sides of the Atlantic should beware of repeating history. If not, they risk irrelevance.

David Abulafia, preeminent historian of maritime trade, speaks at the Legatum Institute this week about his history of the Mediterranean, The Great Sea, and his current work: a history of the oceans. Abulafia shows that from the Greco-Roman period onwards, huge quantities of goods flowed in both directions between China and the Mediterranean through the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. These goods were transported by traders who had to overcome perilous seas, pirates and, most importantly, avaricious rulers.

The Silk Road was not, contrary to popular opinion, the preeminent trade route during the medieval period: far more was transported by ship. Coins from Iraq, Afghanistan, Persia and Spain have been found in Siraf, a port on the Iranian shore of the Persian Gulf and a trading hub in the 8th century. The 9th century saw the revival of the Greco-Roman trade routes in the Red Sea: Chinese pottery has been excavated in Ayla, located on the site of Aqaba in Jordan. Moving further east 12th century accounts survive of Abraham ben Yiju, a Jewish Merchant based in Mangalore. Ben Yiju imported arsenic from the west and sent back iron, mangos and coconuts from the east.

Abulafia describes a global network, stretching from Spain, and later the Atlantic, to Japan. This network arose not by governmental dictat but through the actions of traders. In doing so some made themselves fabulously rich: a 10th century book by the Persian author Buzurg describes the life of a trader called ‘Isaac the Jew’ whose cargo was worth an estimated million dinars – an incredible amount, given that a middle class family could have subsisted on 24 dinars per annum.

That is not to say that governments did not play their part in promoting trade. But their actions often hindered rather than helped. Trade, then as now, was seen as a source of revenue in many countries. Aden flourished as a point of exchange on the Indian Ocean. Customs officers there extracted tribute or taxes at the government checkpoint, taxes which were attractive enough to tempt the Persian Kish who attacked Aden in 1135. The many checkpoints that goods had to travel through inflated prices – spices were not so rare or the journey so arduous – yet consumers in Europe paid a high price. A lot of which lined the pockets of rulers.

Those who resisted, the forbears of modern free-traders, could find themselves in hot water. Isaac the Jew came to a nasty end after refusing the pay the rajah of ‘Serboza’ (assumed to be the Kingdom of Sri Vijaya) 20,000 dinars for passing through his territory.

When governments weren’t taxing trade they were often disrupting it in other ways. In the 1180s the crusader lord Reynaud de Châtillon launched an attack on Mecca and on the traffic passing through the Red Sea. The result, after Reynauld’s failure, was the closure of the Red Sea to non-Muslims.

This is not to suggest that merchants were all saints preyed upon by dastardly rulers. As the Ottomans took over more territory in the eastern Mediterranean in the 15th and 16th centuries European merchants looked for other markets to obtain sugar. The result was an expansion of economic activity in the newly discovered Atlantic islands. With a little help from Christopher Columbus, a Genoese merchant, this would eventually lead to the Caribbean sugar trade and the slave trade.

This brings us back to the TTIP. History, both ancient and more recent, tells us that economic activity usually finds a way: whether its money-lenders finding loopholes in the usury laws in the 12th century or investment bankers engaged in off-balance sheet transactions in the 21st. The challenge for governments is to prevent the more egregious forms of commercial activity without throttling enterprise altogether. The history of maritime trade in the Medieval period shows that rulers usually fail to achieve both objectives – hopefully today’s leaders will not make the same mistake.

Stephen Clarke is a Research Analyst at the Legatum Institute, London.

The Legatum Institute is currently running the History of Capitalism Programme, a series of lectures which explores the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition.

TIME State of the Union 2015

Here’s the One State of the Union Talking Point Republicans Liked

A debate over the next round of global trade deals is heating up in Congress this year

About a half-hour into President Obama’s State of the Union a strange thing happened: most of the Republicans jumped up and cheered while most Democrats stayed seated and silent. It was the only time it happened Tuesday night, and the topic was trade.

“China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region,” said Obama. “That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why should we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field.”

“I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense,” added Obama, who earned a brief cheer from democratic socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders before continuing. “But 95% of the world’s customers live outside our borders, and we can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities. More than half of manufacturing executives have said they’re actively looking at bringing jobs back from China. Let’s give them one more reason to get it done.”

There are few areas of agreement between Obama and the new Republican Congress, but trade promotion authority, or TPA, which would ease the passage of the 12-country Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, potentially the largest free trade agreement ever, is one of them. For years the Administration has been negotiating TPP—affecting about 40% of the world’s GDP and about a third of the world’s trade—but so far Obama has yet to prove to Republicans that he is willing to spend the time, effort and political capital to get it done. But on Tuesday night, the Republicans’ response to his message was ecstatic.

The Republican Senate and House whips, Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, said that the trade talk was “probably one of the brightest spots” and “the most promising part” of the speech. Other top Republicans who criticize Obama around the clock, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said they hoped the President would now push the issue. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, the most senior member, said Obama’s remarks were “welcome but long overdue.”

In 1993, President Bill Clinton led an all-out push to get the massive North America trade deal through Congress. There were face-to-face White House meetings with Congressmen, White House envoys roaming the Hill, and 37 Commerce Department reports targeting industries “from computers to autos,” according to a Christian Science Monitor report, that helped show Congressmen how NAFTA would help their constituents. In October of that year, former CEO of the Chrysler Corporation, Lee Iacocca, stood on the White House South Lawn with hundreds of products (and businessmen) touting what the Administration believed would thrive under NAFTA. Under the white tents, Clinton joked to a pro-trade union man that he would wear the man’s company hat if he gave a speech. A month later, the House passed the bill in a squeaker and the Senate did shortly thereafter.

This time around, Republicans are hoping for another all-out Administration effort on TPP and the “fast-track” bill, which would allow limited congressional debate, no amendments, and an up-or-down vote. The Administration says such a bill is vital to pass TPP, as countries would be less willing to negotiate if they knew Congress could make large changes to the deal. But liberals are livid with Obama’s trade talk; they set up a press conference Wednesday to air out their concerns.

“The typical business plan in this country because of trade and tax policies: You shut down production in Cleveland and you move it to Beijing and sell the products back to the United States,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown after the State of the Union. “That makes no sense. And he’s wrong on that as his predecessors were.”

“If you think that previous trade agreements. . . have done well, you should support the TPP,” said Sanders. “But if you believe, as I do, that they have been disastrous, that they have cost us millions of decent paying jobs, then it make no sense to go forward in a failed policy and it should be defeated. . . . At the end of the day, among many other concerns, American workers are going to be forced to compete against people in Vietnam who make a minimum wage of 56 cents an hour.”

Still pro-trade lawmakers like Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill believe that Obama can bring “enough” Democrats to pass a “fast-track” trade bill. Democratic Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 but opposed the more recent trade agreement bills with South Korea, Panama and Columbia, said Obama “probably” has the votes now to pass a TPA bill through Congress, although it’s easier in the Senate than House, where some conservatives have also raised an uproar about giving more power to the President.

The White House has recently increased its outreach efforts, tasking every Cabinet member to divvy up and target 80 House Democrats, according to the Hill newspaper. In an email Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker told TIME that the trade agenda is a “top priority” for the Administration. “We are taking an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to getting this done,” she said. “We are all out talking not only to members of Congress but to business leaders and workers around the country, telling the story of why trade and exports matter.”

The United State Trade Representative office touts that over nearly five years it has held over 1,600 congressional briefings on TPP. United States Trade Ambassador Michael Froman rebutted liberals’ concerns in a press conference on Wednesday, saying that manufacturing jobs are coming back from overseas and that export-related jobs pay 13 to 18 percent more than other jobs. “It gives us the opportunity to protect workers, protect the environment and level the playing field,” said Froman of TPP.

Still, Obama has a ways to go in getting broad support for both TPA and TPP. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a member of the Democratic leadership and Finance Committee, says “many of us wouldn’t support” TPA unless it addressed some China-related concerns. And the top Democrat on the influential Ways and Means Committee, Michigan Rep. Sandy Levin, says the Administration, Congress and outside groups need to immediately “tear apart” other outstanding issues, including those related to the environment and currency manipulation.

“I think it’s a mistake essentially to say let’s fast-track a package when there isn’t a real understanding of the issues and their resolution,” he said. “So that should be the focus right now and that will be the strong basis for getting bipartisan support. If we don’t do that, I don’t think there’s a chance that there will be bipartisan support.”

TIME Congress

Why Republicans Want to Give President Obama More Power

Barack Obama John Boehner
Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images US President Barack Obama (R) talks with Speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-Ohio, during a meeting with the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept. 9, 2014.

The politics of passing the largest trade agreement ever—further tying the economies of 12 countries nested on the Pacific Ocean, an area larger than the Earth’s landmass—is complex, to say the least.

But House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, a pivotal figure on trade in his new perch, appears optimistic that Congress can pass a major bill that would give President Obama greater authority to negotiate an agreement known as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would affect about 40% of the world’s GDP and about a third of the world’s trade. That is, as long as Obama does his part, of course.

“This is an area we can find common ground with the President, but we need the President to engage,” said Ryan, still sporting his hunting beard at the GOP joint Senate-House retreat, a first for the party in 10 years. “We need the president to engage on this issue with his own party. We need him to make it a priority in the State of the Union. We need him to work with his party to help get votes.”

Ryan’s statement, echoed by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, underlines the difficulties in getting a deal sought by Obama for years. Granting “fast-track” authority, which would allow limited congressional debate, no amendments and an up-or-down vote, poses political perils across the aisle. Liberals, backed by labor unions like AFL-CIO, have raised concerns that TPP will exacerbate income inequality and have already begun planning how they could slow down the process in the Senate. Last month, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren expressed concern that TPP could increase U.S. access to risky financial products and take away regulators’ tools over foreign banks “to prevent the next crisis.”

And even though a new Republican-controlled Senate increases the number of pro-trade congressmen, conservatives have been furious with Obama’s executive actions—voting in the House on Wednesday to claw back years of his immigration decrees—and will be hard pressed to grant the Administration the leverage it needs to negotiate. Ryan points out that the Republican party, however, is largely pro-trade.

“By and large the vast majority of our members are in favor of getting these kinds of trade agreements because they know it’s good for business,” said Ryan. “The question that obviously you hear about is should we give this president TPA? TPA is asserting congressional prerogatives early in the process. So it’s a good thing no matter who the president is … and to make sure we get the best deal.”

Still, there is already sniping that the other party could tank the deal before congressional leaders even announce a goal of a timeline of when they would like to pass TPA.

“The one thing we have found time and time again is where are the 50 Democrats,” asked McCarthy, before noting that last year Obama urged Congress for a trade bill in his State of the Union address and then didn’t talk about it a day latter in a private meeting with then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “The President has to lean in,” said McCarthy.

Some Democrats have said privately that it may be conservatives who tank the trade efforts.

“I think Republicans are going to confront the reality that doing TPA now goes against their central complaint about giving more authority to the president of the United States,” says a House Democratic aide. “They’ve been criticizing the president for months—if not longer—that he’s the emperor-in-chief. And yet they’re going to grant him basically complete authority to put a trade agreement in front of Congress and get an up-and-down vote? The closer this gets to that happening, the more their inexperienced members become familiar with the topic, they’re going to confront challenges in the party.”

If Congress doesn’t pass a trade-promotion authority bill, other countries will be more hesitant to engage in commitments with the U.S. since Congress could amend the deal. But members of Congress have a number of trade concerns spanning labor, environmental and intellectual property issues. In 2013, 60 senators and 230 representatives urged the Administration to address currency manipulation and exchange rate policies that they said could increase the trade deficit and kill jobs.

But Republican leaders at a retreat in Hershey, Pa.—“The Sweetest Place on Earth”—seem willing to work to overcome those obstacles.

MONEY Shopping

How to Get Cash for Your Unwanted Gift Cards

141226_EM_GIFTCARDS
Tom Hahn—Getty Images

Fortunately, you aren't stuck with that gift card to your great-aunt's favorite store. Here's how you can dump it for something you actually want this holiday.

Now that Christmas has passed and the piles of wrapping and ribbons are cleared, you have a good view of the duds in your holiday haul.

For items like that hideous sweater from your cousin, see our guide to returning and exchanging gifts. But if the unwanted present is a little rectangle of plastic redeemable at a store you’ve never heard of or would never willingly wander into, it may seem like you’re stuck with it—or whatever item you find least offensive in that shop.

That’s if you use it at all. This year alone, American consumers will leave more than $1 billion in store credit unused, according to CEB TowerGroup, which tracks gift card trends. Rather than leave that card to languish in your wallet, consider these options for swapping it for something you do want.

Trade It In

There are a number of websites that let you get cash back for your card or swap for another you’re more likely to use, but don’t expect to recoup the full value. These vendors will take a small percentage, meaning you’ll pay a price for your swap.

To make sure you get the most for any trade, try giftcardgranny.com. This online gift card aggregator lets you select the merchant of your card and then easily compare offers from 15 reseller sites, including cardpool.com and giftcards.com, to figure out who will offer you back the highest percentage of your card’s value. Since each gift card reseller uses different fees and payment methods, it’s worthwhile to do this check first and then go to the site offering the most for your unwanted plastic.

Not included in this price comparision site is a new offer from Walmart that’s good if you have a lot of love for the big-box retailer. Walmart will trade store credit for gift cards from more than 200 different retailers, restaurants, and airlines through its own online exchange website, Walmart.CardCash.com. Certain merchant cards will get you up to 95% of the original card’s value, or about 3% more than most reseller websites, which usually top out at 92% of a card’s face value. Others will get you 85% back, and some as little as 70%.

Sell It

If you don’t want to make your swap online, you can visit certain Coinstar kiosks (yes, those same machines you dump a year’s worth of spare change into). These yellow boxes accept gift cards from more than 150 retailers and restaurants, as long as they have a balance of at least $20. It will make you an offer for the card, and, if you accept, will provide you with a voucher you can then redeem for cash at the register of the shop the kiosk is located in.

If you don’t want to have the value of your card dictated by a reseller, use raise.com. Through this site, you can set your own price for the gift card in a marketplace similar to eBay, without the bidding. You can list any e-card for free on the site and a physical gift card for $1, but when you sell it, the company will take a 15% cut, meaning that even if you sell it for full value you can still end up recouping the same or less than a site that pays a lower percentage outright, plus you won’t have to wait as long to get money back.

Donate It

If you’d rather keep another service from profiting off your gift card or don’t find the exchange worthwhile, contact your favorite charity organization and ask if they accept donated gift cards. You could also use a site like Gift Card Giver, which distributes donated gift cards to certain approved nonprofit organizations. Giving the card away could lower your tax bill and extend that holiday generosity even more.

Who do you side with in the Great Gift Card Debate?
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Why gift cards are a crime against Christmas

TIME Nicaragua

Nicaragua Breaks Ground on New Inter-Ocean Canal Project

HKND Group Chairman Wang Jing speaks during the start of the first works of the Interoceanic Grand Canal in Brito town
Oswaldo Rivas—Reuters HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co Ltd Chairman Wang Jing speaks during the start of the first works of the Interoceanic Grand Canal in Brito town Dec. 22, 2014

But faced with fierce protests, authorities held the groundbreaking ceremony in the national capital Managua, some 75 miles from the construction site

Nicaragua started construction of a new $50 billion canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans on Monday, despite local concerns about environmental degradation, land grabs and related human rights abuses.

The 170-mile (280 k.m.) Grand Canal of Nicaragua, as it has been dubbed, will be wider and deeper than the storied Panama Canal, to which the new waterway intends to be a direct competitor.

“With this great canal, Nicaragua expects to move 5% of the world’s commerce that moves by sea, which will bring great economic benefits and double the GDP,” said Nicaragua’s Vice-President Omar Halleslevens, reports the BBC.

But while authorities in the impoverished Central American nation see the shipping route as key to future prosperity, critics say farmlands will be decimated and much of the cash earned will not trickle down to those most in need.

TIME Business

Ebola the Trade Killer?

Transmission electron micrograph of Ebola virus.
Getty Images Transmission electron micrograph of Ebola virus.

Throughout history, disease has been considered an unwanted import

“Health consists of having the same diseases as one’s neighbors,” the English writer Quentin Crisp once quipped. He was right: when a disparity occurs, the sense of threat to our health inevitably increases. And what is true of the individual seems to be true of societies as a whole. “Parasite stress,” as scientists term it, has long been a factor in human relations, intensifying the fear and loathing of other peoples, as well as marginal groups within our own societies.

For a while, it seemed that we had transcended all that. In the wake of AIDS, a real effort was made to raise awareness of the link between health and civil rights. A more cosmopolitan sensibility emerged, encapsulated in the noble ideal of global health. Money poured into Africa in an effort to reduce the crippling burden of malaria and HIV. But, as Ebola reminds us, fundamental problems remain. No longer confined to remote rural locations, Ebola has become an urban disease and has spread uncontrollably in some western African nations, in the absence of effective healthcare.

The sheer scale of the present outbreak has brought these problems forcibly to our attention, but it has also revived the Victorian image of Africa as a dark continent teeming with disease. Pity and horror mingle with irrational fear, and have led some governments to introduce illiberal measures that have little or no basis in science. And the dread of Ebola is no longer confined to the West. Indeed, it tends to be more apparent throughout Asia than among Americans and Europeans. In August, Korean Air terminated its only direct flight to Africa due to Ebola concerns, never mind that the destination was nowhere near the affected region of the continent, but thousands of miles to the east in Nairobi! North Korea has also recently suspended visits from all foreign visitors – regardless of origin.

Anxiety about Ebola is more acute in Asia because epidemics, poverty, and famine are well within living memory. Hence, the eagerness to disengage from countries afflicted with infectious disease. But this divisive tendency stems largely from ignorance. As shown in the case of HIV/AIDS, we can find ways of dealing with new infections that are both effective and humane. To do so requires leadership and determination, both of which have been lacking.

The slowness of the international community to respond to the problem of Ebola, and the willingness of some to sever ties with the continent, is a legacy of centuries of conditioning in which health, politics, and prejudice intertwine. The roots of this mentality lie deep in our history. After humans mastered the rudiments of agriculture 12,000 years ago, they began to domesticate a greater variety of animals and came into contact with a wider range of infections. But this happened at different times in different places, and the resulting imbalance gave rise to the notion that some places were more dangerous than others. Persons who moved between settlements were regarded with suspicion in a world in which the vast majority were sedentary.

Well into the 20th century, diseases tended to be associated with other peoples and places. Thus, when the disease we call syphilis was first encountered in Europe in the late 1490s, it was labelled the Neapolitan or French disease, depending on where one happened to live. And, when the same disease arrived in India, with Portuguese sailors, it was called firangi roga, or the disease of the Franks (a term synonymous with “European”). The influenza that spread around the world from 1889 to 90 was dubbed the “Russian Flu” (for no good reason) and the same was true of the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 to 19. It is safe to assume they were not called these names in Russia or Spain.

We are still inclined to think of epidemic disease as coming from somewhere else, brought to our doorstep by outsiders. Moreover, notions of infection first developed within a religious framework – pestilence came to be associated with vengeful deities who sought to punish transgressors or unbelievers. In the European plagues of 1347 to 51 (the “Black Death”), Jews were made scapegoats and killed in substantial numbers. It was said that their presence was an abomination to the Christian god. In later centuries, gypsies, merchants, and practitioners of “unwholesome” trades were added to the ranks of scapegoats.

Remnants of such beliefs endure, as we have seen in claims that Ebola has been sent to rid the world of gays, atheists, and others of whom God apparently disapproves. But the Black Death began a process whereby disease was gradually, albeit partially, secularized. With nearly half the population dead from plague, manpower was precious and many rulers attempted to preserve it, as well as to reduce the disorder which usually accompanied an epidemic. Disease became the trigger for new forms of intervention and social separation. Within states, it was the poor who came to be stigmatized as carriers of infection, on account of their supposedly unhygienic and ungodly habits. They were the object of measures to contain the spread of infection and also to some extent of charitable provision. But the threat of disease, at least in the first instance, appeared to come from without. States used diplomatic intelligence to assess the risks posed by communication with other cities or states. Sometimes an embargo was imposed on all movement from infected places or ships and their crews were placed in isolation, usually for 40 days. This practice was known as “quarantine.” Originating in Italian and Adriatic cities in the 1470s, it gradually spread throughout Europe and large facilities known as “lazarettos” were constructed to house people and merchandise from places suspected of infection.

These precautions flowed from recognition of the fact that disease followed trading routes and that plague emanated from countries in Asia, where it appeared to be endemic. But they were reinforced by a heavy blanket of prejudice, sometimes against the poor, sometimes against “the Turk,” a term which embraced the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic peoples of Central Asia. The Ottoman lands were the gateway through which plague spread from the east and its rulers were seen as corrupt and fatalistic.

In Europe, too, plague became intimately associated with misgovernment. Countries began to use the accusation of disease to blacken the reputation of rival nations and damage their trade. Quarantines and embargoes became a form of war by other means and were manipulated cynically, often pandering to popular prejudice. The threat of disease was frequently used to stigmatise immigrants and contain marginalized peoples, especially as populations became more mobile during the nineteenth century. The actual numbers of immigrants turned away at inspection stations such as Ellis Island was relatively small but the emphasis placed on screening certain minorities helped shape public perceptions. During an epidemic of cholera in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison notoriously referred to immigrants as a “direct menace to public health,” singling out Russian Jews as a special danger. Chinese migrants were similarly branded when they arrived in California.

The 1800s were an unusually volatile period. Industrialization and urbanization strained social relations and brought enormous sanitary problems. Seemingly new diseases – like cholera – emerged out of nowhere. Ancient ones – like plague, which had been confined for many years to isolated pockets in Asia – returned with a vengeance. The appearance of both these diseases was regarded by some as a form of divine judgment. Others blamed ignorance, squalor, and superstition in their places of origin (India for cholera and China for plague). These prejudices were based partly only older ideas about the dangers of the orient but also reflected a new disdain for non-Western cultures, borne of the age of empire. These “Asiatic” diseases followed the contours of the new global economy, eased by modern technologies such as steamships and railways. They were the consequence not of oriental corruption but of the transformative powers of commerce, science and industry.

The response of Western nations to this maelstrom of disease was to erect barriers to infection. They tried to create a kind of sanitary “buffer zone” in the Middle East and imposed strict quarantines against ports in Africa and Latin American which were regularly infected with yellow fever. But as the global economy matured constraints such as quarantine and embargoes became cumbersome. The panicky response to the re-emergence of plague in the 1890s, in cities such as Hong Kong, Bombay, Sydney and San Francisco, created enormous disruption. Trade came to a standstill and many businesses were destroyed. Great Britain and the U.S. proposed a different way of dealing with disease based less on stoppages and more on surveillance and selective intervention. Combined with sanitary reform in the world’s greatest ports, these measures were able to arrest epidemic diseases without disrupting commerce. The international sanitary agreements of the early 1900s marked a rare example of cooperation in a world otherwise fractured by imperial and national rivalries.

In a globalized world, it is simply not feasible to isolate places which appear to present a higher risk of infection. To do so would devastate their economies and detrimentally affect ours. The spill over of refugees and political instability from imploding states likewise has ramifications far beyond the afflicted countries themselves. We should also remember that an effective response to plague and cholera depends not only on the containment of these diseases, but also on environmental and social improvements. The West was able rid itself of epidemic disease in precisely this way. The European powers also began to clean up their colonies, while the U.S. and the Rockefeller Foundation took similar measures in Latin America and the Philippines. Few would advocate a return to “sanitary imperialism,” but the risk of disease is heightened by a laissez-faire attitude to the welfare of other countries.

The present effort to contain Ebola will probably succeed now that more personnel and resources have been sent to the afflicted countries. But our long-term security depends on the development of a more robust global health infrastructure capable of pre-emptive strikes against emerging infections. If there is one positive thing to note about the reaction to Ebola it is that governments have responded, albeit belatedly, to growing public demand. A more inclusive, global identity appears to be emerging, with a substantially recalibrated understanding of our cross-border responsibilities in the realm of health. Whether this awareness and improvised crisis management translates into a long-lasting shift in how we tackle fast-spreading contagions remains an open question – a life-and-death one.

Mark Harrison is Professor of the History of Medicine and Director of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford University. He is author of Contagion: How Commerce has Spread Disease (Yale University Press, 2013). He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME China

Why You Should Care About Obscure Asian Trade Pacts

U.S. President Barack Obama Visits China
Feng Li—Getty Images President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after a joint press conference at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on Nov. 12, 2014.

They will play an important role in determining America’s future in Asia

As the very name tells you, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing this week was mostly about business. And for good reason. Cross-Pacific trade — especially between Asia and the U.S. — is what made countries like China, Japan and South Korea as rich as they are today. So all of the national leaders who attended — from U.S. President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin to China’s President Xi Jinping — are incentivized to promote freer exchange between their economies, and as a result, much of the talk at the summit regarded pacts aimed at further reducing barriers to exports and imports.

But these days, trade has also become a tool of geopolitical strategy, and that, too, showed itself at APEC. Different Pacific powers are pushing for different trade deals. How that competition plays out in coming years will help shape the region’s political and economic future — and most of all, the role the U.S. may play in Asia for decades to come.

China’s Xi is promoting a regional pact called the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), which would build on the many overlapping free-trade agreements in East Asia. On Tuesday, he said that APEC countries “should vigorously promote” the FTAAP and “turn the vision into reality as soon as possible.” China made a bit of progress on this agenda. In their official communiqué, the APEC leaders pledged “to kick off and advance the process in a comprehensive and systematic manner” and set up a committee to undertake a two-year study on forming the FTAAP.

Meanwhile, Washington is advocating a rival trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation agreement that includes countries as far-flung as Japan and Chile — but, most importantly, excludes China. The U.S. sees the TPP as a way of redirecting trade toward America, while pressuring China to eventually conform to more market-oriented trade and business practices. Obama on Monday said that he saw “momentum building” toward the completion of the TPP.

Which one of these trade deals comes to fruition will have major implications. That’s because trade flows translate into political muscle. For much of the modern history of Asia, the U.S. was at the center of a vast trading network in which factories around the region manufactured goods exported to American consumers. But the position of the U.S. has declined in recent years. Only 14.2% of Asia’s merchandise exports were shipped to the U.S. in 2013, down from 23.7% in 2000, according to the Asian Development Bank. Meanwhile, as China’s economy has grown into the world’s second largest, it has started to transplant the U.S. as the main trading partner for many Asian countries, and that shift has added to Beijing’s political clout in East Asia — at the expense of the U.S.

Beijing wants to keep that trend going, hence the push toward the FTAAP. The U.S. would rather have the TPP, as a way of maintaining its own influence in East Asia and countering rising Chinese power. Right now, the U.S. has the edge. The TPP talks may be dragging on (mainly due to Japanese resistance to opening its highly protected agriculture sector), but they are very advanced, while China’s pact is just inching off the ground. Though China won a minivictory getting its deal a green light at APEC at all, the nod is just the tip-off to what promises to be a long, arduous process — which may or may not go anywhere in the end.

Further complicating matters is the need for the U.S. and China to cooperate on trade with each other. The U.S. market is critical to Chinese economic growth — China exported more than $440 billion worth of stuff to America last year alone — while access to China’s expanding middle class is no less important for the future of many U.S. companies. That leaves Beijing and Washington in the odd position of both competing over and signing onto trade deals. On Monday, the two hammered out a long-awaited understanding to expand the number of products covered under another pact, the Information Technology Agreement, or ITA. This bilateral step could lead to a much bigger trade deal at the World Trade Organization that promises to reduce tariffs on a wider array of IT goods, potentially giving a big boost to U.S. tech outfits.

What that shows is how the U.S. and China, despite their geopolitical contest for dominance in East Asia, ultimately have no choice but to do business. Whatever trade deals eventually win the day — the TTP, the FTAAP and so on — the world’s two biggest economies may have to create a few more acronyms they can share.

TIME Know Right Now

Obama Pushes for Tariff-Busting Trade Agreement in China

“We're here because we believe that our shared future is here in Asia”

President Barack Obama is in China for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The last time he was in China was 2009.

While there, he will be pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a U.S.-led agreement that encompasses 11 countries, which would eliminate tariffs on high-tech goods. China, however, is in favor of the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP).

“We’re here because we believe that our shared future is here in Asia,” Obama said in his speech at the summit Monday.

TIME stocks

4 Things Alibaba’s IPO Tells Us About a Changing World Economy

An employee is seen behind a glass wall with the logo of Alibaba at the company's headquarters on the outskirts of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province
Chance Chan—Reuters An employee is seen behind a glass wall at Alibaba's headquarters on the outskirts of Hangzhou, China, on April 23, 2014

The Chinese e-commerce giant launches one of the largest stock-market debuts in history — and points the way to our economic future

The story of Alibaba has already become legend. Fifteen years ago, Jack Ma, a former English teacher, and his co-founders set up their Internet company in an apartment in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, not far from Shanghai. Today, Alibaba’s online shopping sites in China — mainly Taobao and Tmall — handle twice as much merchandise as Amazon. The company’s initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange will bring in a haul of some $21.8 billion — bigger than Facebook’s — and values Alibaba at $168 billion — four times more than Yahoo.

When Alibaba’s shares start trading Friday, history will be made. And not just in the world of tech or stock markets. Alibaba’s IPO represents some much bigger trends shaping the world economy. Here are four things the IPO tells us about our economic future:

1. More and more of the world’s most prominent companies will be from the developing world.
We still have this image of China as one big factory floor where millions of poor people slog away on assembly lines churning out cut-rate toys, clothes and electronics. Sure, there are still factories like that, but ever more that low-cost manufacturing center guise is becoming the Old China. The world’s most populous nation is developing so rapidly that it is already producing companies that are major players in all sorts of industries. Lenovo is now the largest PC maker in the world, while Huawei is challenging the best of the West in telecom equipment.

Alibaba takes this trend to an entirely new level — out of manufacturing and into the realm of technology and services. Ma and his executive team have created a company that can be named in the same sentence as tech titans like Facebook and eBay. And Alibaba is not unique. Shenzhen-based Tencent, which operates the popular WeChat messaging service, is yet another Chinese Internet firm with global potential. The fact is the most powerful companies in the U.S. and Europe will increasingly have to contend with Chinese companies exploding onto the world stage. And China may be in the lead among the world’s emerging economies in this trend, but it is not alone. India has produced some IT firms that can compete with the world’s best, such as TCS and Infosys.

2. Emerging markets are creating blue chips.
Ever since the idea of investing in the developing world became popular in the early 1990s, there has been a line drawn between these “emerging markets” and the more established bourses of the U.S., Europe and Japan. Emerging markets were supposed to be riskier, where only the bolder of investors would dare tread, compared with the supposedly more trustworthy and less volatile options in New York City and London. The Alibaba IPO shows how that great wall is breaking down. That a company based in a town like Hangzhou can raise more money in its IPO than one based in Menlo Park, Calif., (Facebook) shows that investors are starting to treat firms from the developing world on par with those in the developed world. Of course, the stigma staining companies from China and elsewhere won’t go away overnight — Chinese companies that have listed in New York City have had a sad history of accounting disasters. But going forward, your stock portfolio is going to hold more companies with addresses in Shanghai, Mumbai, Istanbul and São Paulo.

3. Consumers in the developing world will rule the world.
The story of the global economy since the end of World War II has gone something like this: capitalizing on better transport and communications technology, world production shifted en masse to poor countries from rich countries like the U.S. Factories replaced rice paddies in South Korea, China, Indonesia and elsewhere, which then shipped the mobile phones, computers and sneakers manufactured there to store shelves in the U.S. and Europe. The billions of people in these poorer nations couldn’t afford much of the stuff they made.

Now the global economy is “rebalancing.” Consumption in the U.S. and Europe is constrained by weaker job prospects and stagnant wages, while disposable income in China and other developing nations is increasing in leaps and bounds. That is making consumers in these countries the new engine of global economic growth. If the U.S. consumer dominated the 20th century, the Chinese and Indian consumer will control the 21st.

Alibaba is a prime example of the power of these new, emerging consumers. In 2013, Chinese shoppers bought $248 billion of stuff on Alibaba’s retailing websites. Compare that to an estimated $110 billion worth of good purchased on Amazon — globally. Increasingly, it will be companies that sell to households in Beijing, New Delhi and Jakarta that will dominate global consumer industries.

4. Your next job may be at a Chinese or Indian company.
Jack Ma has said that he plans to use some of his multibillion haul from the IPO to expand Alibaba’s presence in the U.S. and Europe. This, too, is part of a trend. Companies from developing markets are becoming more important investors around the world. According to the American Enterprise Institute, Chinese companies have invested more than $500 billion around the world since 2005 — with the U.S. the top destination.

And as companies from China, India and other emerging economies become ever bigger and bigger global investors, they will become bigger and bigger global employers. Firms like Lenovo, Huawei, carmakers Geely and Tata, appliance maker Haier and a host of others already employ thousands between them around the world. Going forward, you might just find your best job opportunity is at a company like Alibaba, based in China, rather than a firm in New York City, Paris or Frankfurt.

TIME India

Why the World’s Most Powerful Leaders Really Love India

Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi
Manish Swarup—AP Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping walk for a meeting in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India highlights the geopolitical contest reshaping Asia

Some of the world’s most important people are wooing India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi like teenage boys drooling over the homecoming queen. Less than a month ago, Modi was feted in Japan on his five-day official visit, during which he even received an unexpected hug from usually stiff Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This week, Modi is hosting China’s President Xi Jinping, who upon his arrival in the country on Wednesday, proclaimed that Beijing wishes “to forge a closer development partnership and jointly realize our great dreams of building strong and prosperous nations.”

Why has Modi become so popular? The reason can be found in how Asia is changing, politically and economically. Ever since China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping launched his country’s remarkable economic miracle in the early 1980s, the old Cold War divisions in the region melted away amid increasing economic integration. According to the Asian Development Bank, trade between Asian countries accounted for 50% of their total trade in 2013, up from 30% in 1985. But with China flexing the political and military muscles it has acquired from growing wealth, Asia is becoming split into two camps once again – one centered on China, the other on the U.S. and its allies, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Each side is looking to bolster its support in the region in order to gain leverage on the other. Tokyo, embroiled in a tense stand-off with Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea, is looking to build a network of allies to “contain” a rising China. Meanwhile, Beijing is aiming to create a power bloc of its own in the region to counteract U.S. influence.

India has become a key wild card in this new geopolitical power game. As a rising power in its own right, and a huge potential source of new business in everything from espressos to expressways, whichever side manages to lure New Delhi into its orbit will tilt the scales in its favor.

Both camps are making their best pitch. Japan’s Abe took the unusual step of traveling from Tokyo to the historic city of Kyoto to personally welcome Modi to the country. Xi ventured all the way to Modi’s home state of Gujarat on this visit, even donning an Indian-style vest. Abe sent off Modi with a promise of $33 billion of new investment. Xi is reportedly planning to top that during his India visit, dangling an even bigger package of $100 billion.

On purely economic grounds, you’d think Xi has an advantage in his quest for Modi’s favor. Trade between the two has exploded, to nearly $66 billion in 2013 from a mere $1.2 billion in 1996. Their economic links will likely continue to strengthen as Chinese companies become more and more important global investors and Chinese consumers more and more important customers. The world’s two most-populous nations would appear to have many economic interests in common as well. Their companies, accustomed to operating in an emerging economy and selling to emerging consumers, are attracted to the potential of each other’s markets. China’s Xiaomi, for instance, has successfully lured Indian customers to its cut-rate smartphones as it has in China. Wouldn’t Modi be wise to hitch his country to the world’s rising power, rather than Japan, a declining one? That would bring to life the economic power of what’s been termed “Chindia.”

But China-India relations are more complicated than that. After India’s independence in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought his new nation would find a friend in newly communist China. The spirit of the times was captured in the phrase Hindi Chini bhai-bhai, or “Indians and Chinese are brothers.” That hope was dashed, however. India has incensed China by allowing Tibet’s Dalai Lama, who Beijing considers a dangerous separatist, to reside in exile in India. Modi, in fact, invited Tibet’s prime minister-in-exile to his inauguration in May. Relations are also continually roiled by border disputes. In 1962, the two fought a nasty border war, and the causes of that conflict linger to this day. The two countries contest land along their border in India’s far north in Ladakh, while China claims India’s eastern province of Arunachal Pradesh. China perennially irritates India over these unresolved issues. Just last week, only days before Xi’s much-heralded visit, India charged that Chinese troops are building a road in the contested territory in Ladakh. In talks with Xi on Thursday, Modi urged the Chinese President to finally resolve their border disagreements.

Such tensions are clearly weighing on Modi’s mind. He has apparently embarked on a mission to upgrade India’s military capabilities and relationships. Abe and Modi during their recent summit agreed to strengthen military ties, and in August, New Delhi and Washington pledged to do the same during U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to India. One of the first economic reforms Modi announced after becoming Prime Minister was easing restrictions on foreign investment into India’s defense sector, a move aimed at bolstering its technology and production capacities. It is an open secret who is the target of all these military moves. While in Japan, Modi took a swipe at an assertive China when he told business leaders in Tokyo that “everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mind-set: encroaching on another country, intruding in others’ waters, invading other countries and capturing territory.”

Modi, then, is attempting to have his halwa and eat it, too — playing off both sides to win as many goodies as he can. In his quest to restart India’s economic miracle by building much-needed infrastructure and boosting manufacturing, Modi will need all the money he can get — from China, the U.S., Japan and anyone else who is offering. India has always been wary of trying itself too tightly into any one political camp — during the Cold War Nehru was the leading figure behind what was known as the “nonaligned movement.” The question is how long Modi can play one side off the other. We may find out soon enough. Later this month, Modi will travel to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama. Let’s see what goodies he picks up there.

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