In the first chart we give a very long-run perspective on the evolution of international trade. The data shows that international trade has a history with four distinct parts:
In the long pre-modern period of worldwide poverty,1 international trade was very limited – globally the sum of exports and imports never exceeded 10% before 1800. And trade grew only very slowly.
This changed over the course of the 19th century: Technological advances, especially in the communication and transport sector, and political and economic liberalization gave rise to the international economy and the world entered the ‘first wave of globalization’. Until 1913, worldwide trade grew by more than 3% annually.
This first wave came to an end with the decline of liberalism and the rise of nationalism. Around the beginning of the First World War political powers chose protectionism over internationalism, and world trade slowed down. In the chart we see the reduction of international trade that lasted until the end of the Second World War.
The fourth part of the history of international trade started when protectionism gave way to the second – and still ongoing – wave of globalization after the end of World War II. Since then, world trade has been growing rapidly; and more and more countries have turned away from isolation and opened to liberalism and internationalism. The sum of exports and imports is now higher than 50% of global production.
# Five hundred years of world trade to GDP ratios2
Data for intercontinental trade per capita for the early pre-modern period 1500-1800 is shown in the chart below and highlights the extent to which intercontinental trade was dominated by the colonial powers. Note that the data is presented in per capita terms for comparability.
The following table presents estimates on the growth rate of international trade.
# Growth in volume of world trade: annual average compound growth rates, 1500-2011 – Max Roser3
In the chart above, we see trade on the global level. In the following graph, we are looking more closely at the changes happening in single countries during the first wave of globalization. It shows the most common measure of international integration: trade openness – the sum of exports and imports as a share of GDP. We find the Netherlands already deeply internationally integrated in the so called Dutch Golden Age of 17th century. Over the course of the 19th century we see how more and more countries open up.
# Exports plus imports as share of GDP in Europe, 1655-1913 – Max Roser4
The following graph shows how political control stopped the trend towards international integration and how the First Wave of Globalization came to an end. The trend was eventually reversed over the course of the years leading up to the Second World War. The slump of international integration over the wars started with the First World War and ended with the Second. It was only then that western Europe resumed the effort for more integration and cooperation. As the graph shows, this effort is successful until the recent past.
# Exports plus imports as a share of GDP in Western Europe, 1850-2000 – Carreras and Tafunell (2008)5
A more detailed country-by-country perspective is presented in the following chart.
# Historical ratio of international trade to GDP for the largest European economies – Mohamed Nagdy6
It was not only trade that suffered during the illiberal first half of the 20th century. The following graph shows that financial integration and international migration were equally affected by protectionism and illiberal politics.
# Migration, financial integration and trade openness, 1880-1996 (indexed to 1900 = 100) – Cambridge Economic History Vol. 27
# ‘The Second Wave of Globalization’ (1945 until now)
After the illiberal first half of the 20th century the world entered in an era of re-globalisation. The importance of international trade – measured in relation to the country’s GDP – can be explored in the following chart.
The changing composition of international trade is shown in the next graph. It shows that the composition of trade of developing countries has changed rapidly. Whereas more than 80% of their exports used to be non-manufactured products – predominantly primary goods – the share of manufactured exports almost reached 70% by the end of the 20th century. An interactive visualization of trade data of the recent past (post-1995) can be found at the MIT here.
# International Historical Statistics (by Brian Mitchell)
Data: Aggregate trade (current value), bilateral trade with main trading partners (current value), and major commodity exports by main exporting countries. No data on trade as share of GDP is readily available.
Geographical coverage: Countries around the world
Time span: Long time series with annual observations – from 19th century up to today (2010)
Available at: The books are published in three volumes covering more than 5000 pages.9 At some universities you can access the online version of the books where data tables can be downloaded as ePDFs and Excel files. The online access is here.
Data from the 19th century onwards for countries around the world is available in the International Historical Statistics (IHS). These statistics – originally published under the editorial leadership of Brian Mitchell (since 1983) – are a collection of data sets taken from many primary sources, including both official national and international abstracts.
Data: Trade (% of GDP) and many more specific series: trade in merchandise, trade in services, trade in high-technology, trade in ICT goods, trade in ICT services – always exports and imports separately. Also export and import value index and volume index.
Geographical coverage: Countries and world regions