GATT: Purpose, History, Pros, Cons

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was the first worldwide multilateral free trade agreement. It was in effect from 1948 until 1995. It was replaced by the World Trade Organization.

The purpose of GATT was to eliminate harmful trade protectionism, which had contributed to the Great Depression. GATT encouraged international trade by removing tariffs on goods.

GATT’s main provisions:

  • All its members must confer “most favored nation” status to each other. That means all members must be treated equally when it comes to tariffs.
  • GATT prohibited restrictions on the number of imports and exports. A few exceptions: if a government had surplus agricultural products, if a country’s foreign exchange reserves were low, if a developing country needed to protect its young industries, and if reasons of national security outweighed economic factors.
  • Developed countries eliminated tariffs on imports from developing countries to help boost the latter’s economies.


By reducing tariffs, GATT boosted world trade by 8% a year during the 1950s and 1960s.

More countries wanted to join GATT. By 1995 it had 128 members, generating 80 percent of world trade.

By increasing trade, GATT promoted world peace. Before World War II, a trade alliance had a 50% chance of succeeding. GATT’s success led to other trade agreements such as the European Union, which has prevented wars between its members.

GATT improved communication by providing incentives for smaller countries to learn English, the language of the world's largest consumer market, giving insights into the developed countries' cultures, marketing practices, and product needs.


Low tariffs can ruin some domestic industries, leading to high unemployment in those sectors. Governments need to subsidize many industries and agriculture to make them more competitive on a global scale.

By the 1980s, world trade was changing to include services, but GATT did not cover the trade of services. So globalized services spread, and no single country could manage them. For example, financial services became globalized. When U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008 collapsed, it threatened the entire global economy.

GATT sometimes required a nation to change its domestic laws to gain trade benefits. This requirement reduced the rights of the nation to rule its own people. For example, India allowed companies to create generic drugs without paying a license fee. GATT required India to remove this law. Drug prices rose so much that many Indians could no longer afford them.

Trade agreements like GATT often destabilize small, traditional economies. For example, countries that subsidize agricultural exports can put local family farmers out of business. The farmers migrate to cities looking for work, often in factories set up by multi-national corporations. These factories might relocate to countries with lower labor costs, and the farmers become unemployed.

Some local farmers who can no longer make a living from traditional crops turn to growing opium or marijuana. Violence related to the drug trade sometimes forces the farmers to flee for safety.

Source: GATT: Purpose, History, Pros, Cons
Copyright © Kimberly Amadeo, The Balance

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