The Spaghetti Bowl: Visualising the Proliferation of Preferential Trade Agreements


The world of preferential trade agreements (PTAs) is rapidly evolving: governments increasingly negotiate on the bilateral and regional level. This activity has created a complex web of PTAs spanning the globe. Economics professor Jagdish Baghwati likened the phenomenon to a “spaghetti bowl” in the early 1990s. Since then, new waves of preferential trade negotiations have swept over different regions, leading to a considerable increase in the overall number of treaties and the network’s density.

The figure above (Click here for a larger version) depicts the whole network of PTAs (a total of 910 treaties, including accessions to base treaties) for 203 countries/customs territories. It is based on the DESTA dataset, which I have visualised using a combination of R and Gephi.

How to read the figure:

  • Countries are depicted as circles, treaties are represented by rectangles; the size of the individual nodes is proportional to their respective number of connections.
  • Lines connect a country with a treaty: individually, they represent membership of a specific country in a PTA.
  • The colours depict geographical regions. Interestingly, the mapping algorithms automatically create regional clusters, which highlights the fact that many governments negotiated the majority of their agreements with states in their immediate neighbourhood.

A few months ago, I also created a dynamic version to visualise these treaty connections.

In comparison, this is how the network looked like in 1995 – when the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established and also approximately when Bhagwati made his observation of the spaghetti bowl: (Click here for the larger version)


The figure above shows all treaties in the DESTA dataset that were concluded before 1996; note that the colouration differs slightly from figure 1.

The Spaghetti Bowl: Visualising the Proliferation of Preferential Trade Agreements

New Article on the Future of Global Trade

Liberia joins World Trade Organization

The current issue of Nueva Sociedad contains our new article titled “Malestar en el libre comercio: Un nuevo rol para la OMC“, which was jointly written with Clara Weinhardt. A shorter and more pointed version of our argument in English is available in International Politics and Society. Find the full text of the Spanish version below.

Malestar en el libre comercio:

Un nuevo rol para la OMC

Cuando se creó la Organización Mundial del Comercio (OMC) hace más de dos décadas, muchos dieron por hecho que las promesas de la globalización económica avanzarían de manera irresistible y que, como consecuencia de ellas, vendría naturalmente la liberalización comercial. No obstante, la política comercial sigue siendo una cuestión en disputa, con importantes consecuencias distributivas en los ámbitos nacional e internacional. Es por ello que es necesario redefinir el papel de la omc: el libre comercio debe complementarse con políticas distributivas justas en el plano nacional, que limiten su potencial disruptivo y debiliten el giro al nacionalismo económico.


Continue reading “New Article on the Future of Global Trade”

New Article on the Future of Global Trade

Starting my PhD on International Trade Governance


This week I am officially starting my PhD in International Political Economy research at King’s College London. I am really happy that the application process has worked out so well and that I am also part of the 1st cohort of the London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership (LISS DTP) with funding by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)!


My PhD project will examine the role of trade experts and expert knowledge in WTO proceedings with a particular focus on the question how the content and contestation of this ‘trade expertise’ has affected the development and interpretation of the concept of national regulatory autonomy in the international trade system. Despite its importance for policy-making, multilateral negotiations and regime maintenance, this question has remained under-explored in academic research. More information on my project coming soon! I will set up a dedicated page on this blog explaining my PhD topic and aim to publish regular updates on my research progress.Esrc_logo


Starting my PhD on International Trade Governance

Inclusive and fair trade, not protectionism, will restore trust in global trade

In our most recent comment in International Politics and Society, Clara Weinhardt and I argue that institutional reform at the WTO level and fair distributional policies on the domestic level are crucial to reduce income inequality and restore trust in global trade. Read the full article below. A longer version of our argument will soon be published in the Spanish edition of Nueva Sociedad.


Why Trump’s anti-globalism is wrong

Inclusive and fair trade, not protectionism, will close the gap between rich and poor

By Fabian BohnenbergerClara Weinhardt | 26.09.2017

When the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was created in 1995, many assumed the promises of open international markets would prove irresistible. Two decades later, the consensus behind the idea of free trade seems to be crumbling. Those on both the left and right are increasingly questioning the benefits of our current approach to economic globalisation.

The WTO’s declining importance in an ever more fragmented global trade system makes it particularly difficult to withstand the strengthening winds of economic nationalism. To restore trust in the global trading system, governments need to make global trade more inclusive and narrow the gap between rich and poor.

The global financial crisis, coupled with increasing inequality, has made people sceptical of globalisation. WTO members are disappointed that after 16 years of negotiations they have still not managed to conclude the Doha Round – which aims to reform the international trading system through the introduction of lower trade barriers and revised trade rules.

Bigger trading nations including the US, the EU, Canada, Japan and China are now turning their attention to bilateral and regional free trade agreements, such as the much-touted CETA agreement between the EU and Canada, and the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between 16 Asian-Pacific countries currently under negotiation.

Continue reading “Inclusive and fair trade, not protectionism, will restore trust in global trade”

Inclusive and fair trade, not protectionism, will restore trust in global trade

New Article on the Precarious Legitimacy of Transnational Trade Governance

Prof. Christian Joerges of the Hertie School of Governance and I recently finished our work on a book chapter that examines the impact of modern trade agreements on democratic policy-making and the ways in which their effects on national governance can be legitimised. The new paper (SSRN download link) is based on a previous version with a slightly different focus that was extensively rewritten by us over the last months. The final version will be published in the forthcoming Research Handbook on the Sociology of International Law edited by Moshe Hirsch and Andrew Lang in the coming months.

A Conflicts-Law Response To The Precarious Legitimacy Of Transnational Trade Governance

The abstract: 

This paper discusses the fundamental tensions between economic globalisation and democratic politics in the field of international trade. New bilateral and regional trade agreements increasingly incorporate other ‘trade-related’ policy areas and threaten to constrain state action and democratic politics. The move towards deeper and more comprehensive trade deals has greatly accentuated grievances and is of exemplary importance in the realms of transnational governance. We examine the decoupling of these agreements from national and democratic control and the resulting legitimacy impasses of transnational governance, based upon the theoretical frameworks of Karl Polanyi and Dani Rodrik. Arguing that politics is not a mistake that gets in the way of markets, we submit our own conceptualisation of transnational legitimacy. In doing so, we suggest a new type of conflicts law which does not seek to overcome socio-economic and political diversity by some substantive transnational regime, but responds to diversity with procedural safeguards, thus ensuring space for cooperative problem-solving and the search for fair compromises.


New Article on the Precarious Legitimacy of Transnational Trade Governance

Fair handeln



In vielen afrikanischen Ländern herrscht Armut, ihre Einwohner sehnen sich nach einem besseren Leben – und flüchten. Schaffen neue Handelsabkommen Abhilfe?

Gastbeitrag für das Magazin enkelfähig zusammen mit Clara Weinhardt

Seit 15 Jahren verhandelt die Europäische Union mit Ländern in Afrika, der Karibik und dem Pazifik über Wirtschaftspartnerschaftsabkommen (EPAs). Viele afrikanische Handelspartner befürchten jedoch Nachteile aus der eigenen Marktöffnung. 2014 wurden zwar mehrere regionale EPAs in Afrika unterzeichnet; die Kontroversen reißen jedoch nicht ab. Aus Sorge um die eigene Industrialisierung weigern sich Staaten wie Nigeria und Tansania, die bereits verhandelten Abkommen zu ratifizieren.

Und tatsächlich können sie sich in einigen Bereichen negativ auf die wirtschaftliche Entwicklung auswirken. Dabei sind weniger die Handelsgrenzen der EU das Problem, denn die Abkommen sehen weitgehende Zollsenkungen vor. Risiken birgt stattdessen die Marktöffnung, zu der sich die afrikanischen Partner im Gegenzug verpflichten.

Schokolade statt Kakaobohnen

Der Abbau eigener Handelsgrenzen verspricht zwar günstigere Importe, ver­ringert aber das Exportpotenzial. Der flexible Einsatz protektionistischer Maßnahmen, wie etwa Steuern, wäre für afrikanische Länder deshalb wichtig, um eine Marktöffnung mit der gezielten Förderung einzelner Sektoren zu verbinden, deren Wertschöpfungspoten­zial hoch ist. Wertschöpfung bedeutet: anstelle von Rohstoffen wie Zucker oder Kakaobohnen weiterverarbeitete Produkte wie Schokolade zu exportieren, deren Marktwert um ein Vielfaches höher liegt.

EPAs erschweren es jedoch, Steuern auf den Export von Gütern wie Rohstoffen einzusetzen. Äthiopien zum Beispiel hat diese in der Vergangenheit erfolgreich als Anreiz für eine Weiterentwicklung der eigenen Lederindus­trie genutzt. (Dazu hier mehr von mir – FB.) Viele afrikanische Länder haben dennoch ein EPA abgeschlossen, insbesondere um dem drohenden Verlust von zollfreiem Marktzugang in die EU zu entgehen.

Die EU betont, dass die EPAs im Vergleich zu anderen Handelsabkommen weiter reichende Schutzklauseln und Ausnahmen enthalten. Das ist richtig, kann aber nicht in allen Fällen die Risiken auffangen. Zwar konnten die afrikanischen Staaten rund 20 Prozent des Handelsvolumens von der Marktöffnung ausnehmen; diese Ausnahmen betreffen vor allem landwirtschaftliche Produkte.

Doch in Zukunft könnte es für viele afrikanische Staaten sinnvoller sein, Produkte der weiterverarbeitenden Industrie zu schützen. Die Länder, die ein EPA unterschrieben haben, sollten bei der Umsetzung darauf drängen, dass die angekündigte Überprüfung der Abkommen tatsächlich verwirklicht wird. Auf diese Weise ließen sich bei negativen Auswirkungen zumindest Anpassungen anmahnen.

Afrikanische Regierungen sind gefordert

Es wäre jedoch zu einfach, die EPAs zum zentralen Entwicklungshindernis der afrikanischen Partner zu stilisieren. Die individuellen nationalen Rahmenbedingungen spielen eine zentrale Rolle für wirtschaftliches Wachstum und soziale Gerechtigkeit. Viele Regierungen haben ihren eigenen Spielraum in der Vergangenheit nicht genutzt. Mit anderen Worten: Die afrikanischen Länder müssen auch eigene soziale, politische und wirtschaftliche Reformen initiieren und umsetzen.

Die Grundidee der EPAs, handelspolitische Reformen anzuregen, ist zukunftsweisend, aber der Impuls für eine strategische Neuausrichtung einer nationalen Ökonomie kann nicht von außen kommen. Viele afrikanische Regionen sind gerade erst dabei, eine eigene handelspolitische Strategie zu entwickeln. Der Druck der EU, die Abkommen dennoch abzuschließen, könnte somit kontraproduktive Auswirkungen haben, weil einige Länder schlicht noch nicht dazu bereit sind.

Fair handeln

Global Trends in Regime Development and Democratisation

I recently worked with a few fascinating datasets that describe the transformation and democratisation of national governments over the last decades. Based on this very comprehensive data, this post discusses important trends in global regime development from 1972 to 2015 and also provides a few more detailed graphs for Africa, which is the focus of my current research for the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA). See here for some of my previous work at GIGA.

As the data below shows, the global political landscape has changed significantly over the last decades. A large majority of countries made considerable progress in liberalising their political systems and establishing democratic institutions. Regularly scheduled and increasingly competitive elections have become the norm and most countries are now governed by constitutions that are – at least on paper – more or less democratic. However, authoritarian rule has persisted or reappeared in many regions of the world and this has led to different trajectories in regime development. Some seasoned observers even argue that democratic progress has slowed significantly and that the last wave of democratisation might now be succeeded by a long phase of stagnation and decline.


Source: Own calculation based on the variable ‘regime1ny’ in Wahman, Teorell, and Hadenius (2013); see their codebook (and below) for more information on the data. 

The figure above summarises the changes in the type of government for a large majority of countries between 1972 and 2010. In particular, it shows the slow but steady increase in the number of democracies, highlights the sudden post-Cold War transformation from one-party to multiparty regimes and hints towards the stagnation of democratic progress over the last decade.

Comparing this with ‘raw’ data from the Freedom House Index (FHI, on which the categorisation in Wahman, Teorell, and Hadenius (2013) is partly based), we can identify similar trends when it comes to both civil liberties and political rights. In the FHI, a country is assigned two ratings each year – one for political rights and one for civil liberties. Each is rated between 1 and 7, with 1 representing the greatest degree of freedom (!) and 7 the smallest degree of freedom. Below you find what is called a ‘violin plot’ that summarises the development in both ratings for the FHI. The figure shows the distribution of cases from 1975 to 2015 in five-year intervals. The black diamonds depict the average score in the given year across all countries; the horizontal black lines describe the quantiles.

We can clearly identify a significant strengthening of citizens’ civil liberties and political rights. For example, in 1975 more than half of all countries were rated 5 or worse in political rights and only one-quarter received a score of 3 or better, but this situation reversed dramatically: in 2015, only about one-quarter received a rating of 5 or worse and almost half of all countries were rated 3 or better (one-quarter was even rated 2 or better). The average in both rankings also decreased by more than one point between 1975 and 2005 (also between 1975 and 2015). More recently, averages slightly increased again, but at least the median for political rights in 2015 shows that this might primarily be due to some extreme cases rather than an overall retreat of democracy.


Source: Own calculation based on FHI data (1975-2015)

Of course, reducing the very broad spectrum of real-world government types to a few (more or less distinct) regime categories simplifies the issue and many interesting questions remain unanswered. One of these questions is, for example, whether ‘multiparty regimes’ – which technically still are authoritarian regimes – have become more democratic since 1990. I try to provide an initial answer to this question below by looking at the size of the majority that the governing party enjoys in the country’s legislative assembly. This offers a relatively good indication of the level of political contestation (openness of the political system and electoral competitiveness) in the country as well as of the strength of the domestic opposition. A lot has been written on the emergence of ‘electoral authoritarian regimes‘ or ‘competitive authoritarianism‘, but this post is not a (good) literature review.

[Also see below for figures on regime development in Africa.]

Continue reading “Global Trends in Regime Development and Democratisation”

Global Trends in Regime Development and Democratisation