The closing of the twentieth century and the opening of the twentyfirst witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of regional trade agreements (RTAs). As Europe pushed for the completion of its regional market, a stunning number of countries in North America, South America, Africa, and Asia rushed to form regional markets of their own. Between 1990 and 1994, officials from the World Trade Organization (WTO) were notified of thirty-three new RTAs, more than doubling the total to sixtyeight (Frankel 1997: 4; International Monetary Fund 1994). Then, between 1995 and 2001, another one hundred RTAs formed. A patchwork now covered much of the world. As one observer wrote, RTAs had become “almost a craze in the sedate world of economics, springing up here, there and everywhere” (Urata 2002: 21). Numerous academics, journalists, and other observers commented on this trend. Most assumed that the majority of RTAs could be understood as expressions of a single phenomenon: a widespread embrace of the principle of free trade. Largely uninterested in comparative questions, they then proceeded to investigate three pressing issues: the causes of this collective turn to free trade, the future of the global economic system, and the local consequences of RTAs for the environment, workers, and other matters. Few wondered whether the presumed similarity of RTAs was, in fact, accurate. The Social Construction of Free Trade challenges this undifferentiated view of RTAs and, in so doing, offers one of the first systematic comparative analyses of regional market building across the world. The starting premise of the book is that the pursuit of free trade in any given region is a social endeavor. Much like national market building, it occurs in the midst of rich institutional and political contexts. Market officials take action, but powerful constraints limit their choices. Traditions, structures, values, and norms along with the preferences of powerful actors define the range of what is possible. Societal players, in turn, respond to a broader marketplace by expanding their reach across national borders. Yet which players do so and what, exactly, they engage in depend on the specific opportunities presented to them and the position of those players in their respective environments prior to integration. We thus observe continuity between the shape of RTAs and preexisting local reali© Copyright, Princeton University Press. No part of this book may be distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical means without prior written permission of the publisher.