Traditionally trade was regulated through bilateral treaties between two nations. For centuries under the belief in mercantile most nations had high tariffs and many restrictions on international trade. In the 19th century, especially in the United Kingdom, a belief in free trade became paramount. This belief became the dominant thinking among western nations since then. In the years since the Second World War, controversial multilateral treaties like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) (GATT) and World Trade Organization have attempted to promote free trade while creating a globally regulated trade structure. These trade agreements have often resulted in discontent and protest with claims of unfair trade that is not beneficial to developing countries.

Free trade is usually most strongly supported by the most economically powerful nations, though they often engage in selective protectionism for those industries which are strategically important such as the protective tariffs applied to agriculture by the USA and Europe.  The Netherlands and the United Kingdom were both strong advocates of free trade when they were economically dominant, today the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan are its greatest proponents. However, many other countries (such as India, China and Russia) are increasingly becoming advocates of free trade as they become more economically powerful themselves. As tariff levels fall there is also an increasing willingness to negotiate non tariff measures, including foreign direct investment, procurement and trade facilitation. The latter looks at the transaction cost associated with meeting trade and customs procedures.