ON DECEMBER 3, the World Trade Organisation proclaimed, somewhat smugly it now seems, that global free trade had triumphed over increasing pressures for protectionism. To be fair, its annual report is a lagging indicator - pointing to the facts, rather than the future. But even at the time of its publication, there were ample signs that all was far from well with the global trading system. Trade tensions between the United States and Japan have become a fact of life, and have been for several years now. If Washington is not complaining about access to the car market, insurance or aviation, it is grumbling about Tokyo's restrictive farm policies. Beijing has more recently become a bete noire for the US, with its ballooning trade surplus underlying the friction. Still more recent, Brussels has been brought into the scrap. The European Union has long had barriers against a range of US goods - just as it has against any other country outside the bloc. After all, what is the point of a trade bloc if everyone is treated at the same level. The atmosphere of late has turned somewhat poisonous - especially over the issue of bananas. Now Washington is waving a big stick over cheap steel imports - raising the prospect of punitive tariffs against Japanese and Brazilian steel imports. Of course, this was not the real issue, rather the commodity that broke the proverbial camel's back. Uncle Sam is decidedly fed up. Fed up at being the export-dump of the world. The country has long been used to being the powerhouse of the world economy, sucking in mammoth amounts of exports from the developing world. To an extent, everyone is happy with this situation. The American consumer gets to buy their cheap goods and pursue their consumption-crazy lifestyles. The rest of the world yearn for Yankee greenbacks with which to cushion their vulnerable economies. The problem now is that things have gone too far. The US is struggling with a record current account deficit, together with a ballooning consumer credit. Something must give sooner of later. It does not help when the obvious and most immediate cost of these cheap imports is lost American jobs. In the less than free world of global trade the invisible hand of the market plays a poor second fiddle to the long arm of policy. The anti-dumping measures are a political problem, not an economic one, and they demand a political solution. The sooner that solution is arrived at and the world returned to its usual state of grumbling harmony, the better off we will all be.