History shows that autarkic impulses tend to be closely associated with authoritarianism and national aggression – so we need to think carefully about the implications of this summit in Singapore
Autarky, or total economic self-sufficiency for a single community, has been the dream of a diverse range of political movements since the dawn of industrialisation.
19th century utopian socialists, like the French Fourierists, believed it would liberate them from the social alienation of capitalism.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler, obsessed by Germany’s defeat in the First World War, ranted about the need for national self-sufficiency and the Third Reich actually went to great lengths to achieve this, particularly in agriculture.
Stalin, too, severed historic trade ties with the West, making a mighty push for total economic independence of the Soviet Union in steel and energy supplies in his Five Year Plan of 1928. Mao Zedong tried to emulate this in China with the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s.
Post-independence India was heavily influenced by a nationalistic vision of autarky, inspired by Gandhi’s injunction: “It is the patriotic duty of every Indian to spin his own cotton and weave his own cloth.”
But the modern nation that has come closest to realising economic autarky is North Korea.
Juche, or “self-reliance”, has been the official state ideology of North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, when it was imposed by the Communist dictator Kim Il-sung.
And it has turned out to be not a dream, but an all-encompassing nightmare. Juche has delivered not prosperity and happiness, but destitution and a unique form of misery.
The divergent paths of North Korea and South Korea over the past 65 years make up one of the great natural experiments of economics. While the North shut itself off from global trade, the South embedded itself in the global economy, becoming an export powerhouse.