The United States Trade Representative annually releases the Administration’s Trade Policy Agenda and prior year’s Annual Report. The report is released during February each year. On February 28, 2020, USTR released the 2020 Trade Policy Agenda and 2019 Annual Report of the President of the Untied States on the Trade Agreements Program. https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/2020_Trade_Policy_Agenda_and_2019_Annual_Report.pdf.
This year’s trade policy agenda reviews activities at the WTO, including certain important disputes (pages 9-11), a review of where the U.S. perceives it led efforts to change the World Trade Organization (pages 13-15), and identifies priorities for 2020 at the WTO. Such priorities include pursuing disputes through the WTO where appropriate and pushing “for a WTO that reflects current economic realities and strengthens free-market economies”. Pages 18-19. As stated in the report,
“The United States will continue to lead the effort on WTO reform. In addition to addressing the Appellate Body, seeking a new fisheries agreement, pursuing a digital commerce agreement, enforcing notifications
obligations, and seeking reform of ‘special and differential treatment’ for “developing” countries, the United States will advocate for other changes at the WTO that will have the WTO working for its Members. A number of features at the WTO reflect out-of-date assumptions and do not reflect current realities. The United States has already submitted papers focused on market access and tariff issues with the intent of updating our understanding of the current state of agriculture trade and the challenges farmers are facing today. Through our agriculture ‘reset’ efforts, the United States is trying to break the bad habit of taking the same entrenched positions and expecting a different outcome.
“The United States will also explore a broader reset at the WTO. The WTO currently locks-in outdated tariff determinations that no longer reflect deliberate policy choices and economic realities. As a result, many countries that have large economies that have developed significantly over the past two decades continue to maintain very high bound tariff rates, far in excess of the rates applied by the United States or to which the United States is bound. For example, the U.S. average bound tariff rate and applied Most Favored Nation rate are both 3.4 percent. In comparison, Brazil’s bound tariff rate is 31.4 percent, and its applied rate is 13 percent. India’s bound and applied tariff rates are 48.5 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
Members need to fundamentally rethink tariffs and their role, recognizing that commitments on tariffs should reflect current economic conditions.
“In addition, the United States will continue to push for a close review of the WTO’s budget, which, as demonstrated by egregious Appellate Body member salaries, requires greater scrutiny. The WTO must ensure that there is accountability and that expenditures reflect the priorities of its Members.
“Finally, the United States will advocate for changes that allow for additional and more effective plurilateral agreements. There is an urgent need for a new political and legal understanding at the WTO that enables
the pursuit of less-than-fully multilateral outcomes while preserving the characteristics of the WTO.”
The importance of the U.S. focus on a “broader reset” to the functioning of the WTO should be obvious. The GATT and WTO have worked on a system of periodic enlargement of liberalization with members undertaking specific additional obligations through tariff bindings or service sector commitments or through changes to agreements. The U.S. is seeking a fundamental modification in the approach to obligations, one which reflects changing capacities of the members and one which reflects the organizing principle of agreements among market economies. In a consensus-based system, any of the fundamental reforms that the U.S. has been seeking are not achievable without a major crisis and most likely not even then.
The WTO dispute settlement system is in the throes of a crisis over the proper functioning of the Appellate Body. The United States has provided a detailed review of the problems over the last two years, the history of when problems developed and how the problems identified constitute deviations from the purpose and structure of the Dispute Settlement Understanding. Despite some efforts by other WTO Members, resolution of the impasse seems a long way off based on the different positions of major players.
Similarly, that the GATT and WTO are premised on market-based economies is hardly controversial. Yet, the rise in importance of nonmarket or state-directed economies as Members has created distortions in the functioning of markets and challenges the viability of the WTO and certainly the adequacy of current WTO rules. The issue of different economic systems within the WTO has created a second crisis in fact.
While the United States, the European Union and Japan have been working on proposals to address certain drivers of the distortions created by nonmarket economies, the recent General Council meeting shows the challenge to having movement even on the rules needed to address such distortions. Compare statements of the United States and China from the General Council meeting of March 3, 2020. https://geneva.usmission.gov/2020/03/03/statements-by-ambassador-dennis-shea-at-the-march-3-2020-general-council-meeting/ (agenda item 9); http://wto2.mofcom.gov.cn/article/chinaviewpoins/202003/20200302941477.shtml.
U.S. Views on the WTO at 25 and What are the U.S. Interests
The 2020 Trade Policy Agenda and 2019 Annual Report from USTR contains an important chapter, “The World Trade Organization at Twenty-Five and U.S. Interests”, which reviews the Trump Administration’s views of whether U.S. interests have been served by the WTO as it has functioned and what is needed to make the WTO function as intended. The sixteen page section of the report provides a concise review of U.S. concerns with the WTO and the Administration’s objectives for WTO reform. A lengthy excerpt (pages 4-8) follows:
“2. Straying from the Original Mandate
“The past quarter century has demonstrated that the WTO fails to act in accordance with its aspirational goals and is incapable of dealing with many of the major challenges facing the modern international trading
system. This is due in large part to the difficulty the organization has faced when it has attempted to negotiate improvements to the system since the Uruguay Round in 1994.
“Under the GATT system, between 1947 and 1994, there were eight negotiating rounds – each of which led to lower tariffs and fewer trade barriers among all GATT Members. But in the twenty-five years since the
WTO began operation—though there have been some positive agreements that address discrete aspects of trade—Members have not reached a significant new multilateral market access agreement. As a result, most of the fundamental rules that govern global trade were negotiated before the WTO even came into existence.
“The last major effort to modernize these rules under the WTO – the Doha Round – started to collapse in 2008, and has now been dead for more than a decade. Despite all of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the last quarter century – the rise of China, the evolution of the Internet, and the emergence of new, potentially disruptive technologies – the WTO is still largely operating under the same framework from the early 1990s. This has resulted in several major failures of the WTO to live up to its mandate.
“a. Failure to Converge: The Challenge of Non-Market Economies
“The political, economic, and trade landscape in 2020 differs greatly from those that existed in 1994. At the time the WTO came into existence, many in the West hoped that most nations of the world would coalesce around a model of open societies, free markets, and democratic values. It was hoped that such a movement would usher in an era of relative peace in which geopolitical considerations would become less of a factor, and competition would exist primarily at the commercial rather than the political level. This optimism prevailed in Washington and other Western capitals despite warning signs that some nations were not committed to openness.
“Twenty-five years later, a starker reality has come into view as non-market economies like China continue to perceive advantages in maintaining state-directed economic policies. The growing influence of these non-market economies in world trade amplifies the need for the WTO to update its rulebook with new disciplines on industrial subsidies, state-owned and state-influenced enterprises, forced technology transfer, and intellectual property theft. The WTO must also meaningfully address issues like digital trade and labor and environmental standards.
“The WTO’s failure to keep pace with new developments in the global economy has resulted in significant advantages for non-market economies to the detriment of market economies like the United States. As just one example, scholars estimate that China’s accession to the WTO has contributed to the loss of millions of jobs in the United States, primarily in the manufacturing sector.
“Moreover, the establishment of the WTO has ushered in an era of massive global trade imbalances. While neutral market factors contribute to these long-running imbalances, that the imbalances remain unchanged for decades, despite varying periods of growth and recession, indicates there are other, non-market factors at play. Unfortunately, the global trade system under the WTO currently enables these distortions and imbalances, and the benefits enjoyed by some countries at the expense of others under the current system create serious barriers to reform.
“While China is not the only country that has benefitted from the WTO’s deficiencies, it remains the primary example of the non-market economies thriving under the current system. China’s economic practices are incompatible with the norms the WTO sought to establish at its founding,
and the organization has demonstrated an inability to respond effectively to the challenges it poses.
“b. Failure to Develop: Outdated Standards and Rules for Developing Countries
“No one expected in 1994 that the Uruguay Round and Marrakesh Agreement would be the final word on world trade policy. As with the previous era of world trade under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of 1947, parties assumed there would be additional rounds of agreements to update rules and address new challenges in world trade over time. This process has not occurred, leaving in place outdated rules that have failed to keep pace with the changing world.
“The significant advantages some countries enjoy over others under the current system have completely undermined incentives for Members to agree to meaningful changes and reforms. While there are several examples of these unfair advantages, many stem from two structural issues.
First, current WTO rules allow large and advanced economies to claim special and differential treatment as “Developing Countries” during negotiations. Second, the bound tariff rates established at the time Members entered the agreement are essentially permanent under current rules.
“i. Treatment of Advanced Economies as “Developing Countries”
“Despite the substantial growth of the global economy since 1994, the WTO continues to rest on an outdated and oversimplified dichotomy between developed and developing countries. This framework has allowed some WTO Members to maintain unfair advantages in the international trade arena.
“Under the current system, countries merely need to self-declare as “developing” – regardless of their GDP or role in global trade – to seek flexibilities under WTO rules. This special and differential treatment can take the form of generous transition periods, higher tariff bindings, and the ability to use prohibited subsidies, among others.
“Today, nearly two-thirds of WTO Members claim developing-country status, arguing they are entitled to blanket special and differential treatment as a matter of right. While some developing-country designations are certainly legitimate, many are entirely unreasonable in light of current economic circumstances. For example, advanced economies like China,
India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey continue to insist they are automatically entitled to special and differential treatment. A similar claim is made by some of the richest nations in the world, including Brunei, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
“The clear purpose of special and differential treatment is to help truly disadvantaged countries ease their economies into the global trade system. This does not work if large or wealthy countries abuse this framework and seek to take advantage of benefits meant for countries whose economies are truly just getting off the ground.
“The lack of differentiation among self-declared developing countries has also severely hampered the WTO’s ability to achieve meaningful negotiated outcomes that expand market access, as certain large and advanced economies feel entitled to claim exemption from new rules, avoid engagement on substantive issues, and maintain outdated asymmetries that work to their advantage.
“ii. Permanent Disparate Tariff Rates
“The WTO has failed to harmonize tariffs over time. As a result, many significant global traders continue to have very high bound tariff rates, far in excess of U.S. bound or applied tariff rates.
“The U.S. average bound tariff rate and applied most-favored-nation (MFN) rate are both 3.4 percent. In comparison, Brazil’s bound tariff rate is 31.4 percent, and its applied rate is 13 percent. India’s bound and applied tariff rates are 48.5 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
“Under current WTO rules, these rates are locked in place with no sunset clause or meaningful mechanism to allow the United States and other Members to address enormous differences. It is not reasonable to accept that because the United States agreed to such disparities many years ago, when economic and geopolitical conditions were very different, that the United States should tolerate them in perpetuity. Commitments on tariffs should keep pace with the realities of the global economy rather than locking certain countries into nonreciprocal rates.
“c. Failure to Enforce: A Breakdown in the Rules as Originally Agreed
“The WTO has strayed from the system agreed to by WTO members and has appropriated to itself powers that WTO Members never intended to give it. This drift has primarily taken place in relation to transparency require- ments and the dispute settlement system.
“All WTO Members undertake significant commitments to provide regular notifications of subsidy programs and other information critical to assessing trade conditions around the world. Despite these clear obligations, many U.S. trading partners – including significant economies like China and India – choose to ignore them. As of December 2019, more than 70 percent of Members had not submitted their most recent questionnaire on their import licensing procedures, and over a quarter of agriculture notifications from 1995-2016 were outstanding. This poor adherence to notification obligations has created a lack of transparency at the WTO, which has led to the failure of many Members to implement
existing commitments and the breakdown of negotiations. When countries cannot adhere to these most basic of existing obligations, it is unsurprising that they cannot achieve consensus on new, more ambitious commitments.
“ii. The Dispute Settlement Process
“The United States signed on to the Uruguay Round Agreements with the understanding that its sovereignty would be respected and its existing domestic laws dealing with unfair foreign trade practices would remain fully effective. Instead, the WTO’s Appellate Body has imposed new rules never agreed by the United States or approved by the Congress, dramatically undermining this understanding.
“Article 3.2 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding plainly states, ‘Recommendations and rulings of the Dispute Settlement Body cannot add to or diminish the rights and obligations provided in the [WTO] covered agreements.’ In other words, the dispute settlement process was never intended to make new rules that would become binding on Members. It
was instead designed to help Members resolve specific disputes among themselves about the application of existing rules, as set out in the text of the agreements. These limitations remain vital to U.S. sovereignty because they ensure the United States does not become bound by obligations that Congress has not approved.
“Over the last quarter century, the United States has become the chief target of litigation at the WTO, and has at least partially lost the overwhelming majority of cases brought against it. 155 disputes have been filed against the United States, while no other Member has faced even a hundred disputes. According to some analyses, up to 90 percent of the disputes pursued against the U.S. have resulted in a report finding that a U.S. law or other measure in question was inconsistent with WTO agreements. This averages out to five or six successful WTO disputes against the United States every year.
“In other words, the WTO has effectively treated one of the world’s freest and most open economies – with an enormous and growing trade deficit – as the world’s greatest trade outlaw. In so doing, the WTO’s Appellate Body has repeatedly created new obligations from whole cloth. For example:
“ The Appellate Body has attacked U.S. countervailing duty laws, making it easier for other countries to provide market distorting subsidies through non-market policies and practices.
“ The Appellate Body has interpreted WTO rules in a manner that puts the U.S. tax system at an unfair and illogical disadvantage compared to that of many trading partners.
“ The Appellate Body has interpreted the Agreement on Safeguards – an agreement critical to addressing global import surges that can overwhelm a particular industry – in a manner that significantly limits the ability of Members to use that vital provision.
“ The Appellate Body has interfered with the appropriations process by limiting Congress’s ability to spend money collected through antidumping and countervailing duties.
“In many cases, the Appellate Body’s interpretations of WTO rules would prevent the United States from taking action to address unfair trade practices that hurt U.S. workers In this sense, it has also usurped the U.S. government’s accountability to those who are truly sovereign – the American people.
“For many years, U.S. Administrations under both parties have warned trading partners of the harm resulting from Appellate Body activism. The Appellate Body simply cannot be allowed to flaunt basic rules of operation to which all Members have agreed. Thus far, U.S. concerns have largely been ignored.
“These lapses have incentivized WTO Members to rely on litigation through the Appellate Body to get results rather than negotiation. This, in turn, has greatly undermined the negotiating process at the WTO because countries now believe they can obtain better outcomes through litigation than through negotiation, especially with the United States. Such countries have no incentive to negotiate in good faith if they believe there are easier
avenues to pursue their interests.
“Furthermore, in its day-to-day operations, the Appellate Body has developed a troubling pattern of ignoring mandatory deadlines for deciding appeals, dragging some – such as those in the U.S.-EU Large Civil Aircraft disputes – out for over a year each; making impermissible findings on issues of fact, including fact-finding related to Member’s domestic laws; issuing unnecessary advisory opinions rather than facilitating negotiations
between parties; treating prior Appellate Body interpretations as binding precedent for dispute settlement panels; extending Appellate Body members’ terms without authority; and compensating Appellate Body members excessively and opaquely.
“These actions represent a tendency by the Appellate Body to both institute rules to which WTO Members have not agreed and ignore or evade existing rules written in plain language. This has led to a significant decline in trust in the Appellate Body, which has opened the entire dispute settlement system to serious vulnerabilities. The WTO simply cannot claim to stand for a rules-based trading system if its own institutions fail to follow clear and explicit rules. Any action beyond these rules undermines the WTO’s role as a negotiation forum, lacks legitimacy, and usurps Members’ sovereignty.
“Despite the serious challenges facing the World Trade Organization, the United States values the WTO and is working diligently within the organization to find solutions. For example, the United States is actively engaged in negotiations to discipline harmful fishing subsidies and to develop new rules to govern digital trade. The United States has called attention to unequal bound and applied tariff rates, and continues to press other Members for additional market access. The United States has also offered specific proposals to improve transparency, address the lack of compliance with existing notification obligations, and promote greater differentiation among self-declared developing countries. The United
States continues to press longstanding concerns with the Appellate Body and the dispute settlement system, including its lack of transparency. The United States has taken each of these steps in an attempt to ensure that the WTO retains its relevance to trading nations.”
Chances for Meaningful Reform are Slim at Best
Many WTO Members recognize that WTO reform is important. The WTO Director-General and his team have noted the need for reform and the fact that reform has become an important topic in the last year or so. See, e.g., DDG Wolff: An update of multilateral trade rules is needed to increase their relevance, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_03mar20_e.htm;
However, few, if any, Members other than the United States, have expressed the view that fundamental reform is needed to ensure the relevance of the WTO going forward. The U.S. objectives for reform are sweeping and would require many Members to accept broader liberalization, rules on nonmarket economy distortions, loss of historic privileges based on changed economic situations and a return to a system largely focused on negotiations to achieve changes in the status quo. Under rules of consensus and the views expressed by many Members, it is unlikely that the collective will for fundamental reform exists even if there is agreement that some reform is desirable.
For the Trump Administration fundamental reform is critical to making the WTO a viable organization and ensuring that trade relationships under multilateral rules are fair in an ongoing sense. What the U.S. seeks is an ambitious reform outcome. The USTR conclusion to its review of the WTO’s first 25 years (page 16, provided below) summarizes the concerns and indicates a continued U.S. commitment to the WTO. The U.S. is certain to continue to use all tools at its disposal to pursue meaningful reform or obtain reciprocity bilaterally. The message from the U.S. is clear. Let’s hope that meaningful reform will occur even if the likelihood of such reform seems remote.
“It is difficult now, twenty-five years after its inception, to declare the WTO a success for American interests. Indeed, the organization in many ways ignores and enables unbalanced trade and unfair trade practices. If the WTO is to be credible as a vibrant negotiating, implementation, and dispute settlement forum, it must be limited to its original mandate and address areas in need of structural reform. This means Members must recognize and reaffirm that the WTO is an organization committed to promoting the adoption of market-based policies by its Members. The goal of the organization must continue to be a greater convergence around market-based principles, not the co-existence of radically different economic systems. The WTO – and its dispute settlement system – must also respect the rules as agreed to by Members, embrace its role as a negotiating forum rather than a litigating entity, and stop its infringement on the sovereignty of the United States and other Members.
“Looking ahead to the Twelfth Ministerial Conference this year, the United States believes that Members must identify opportunities to make meaningful progress on these objectives. To remain a viable institution
that can fulfill all facets of its work, the WTO must also find a means of effectively pursuing negotiations between Ministerial Conferences, focus its work on structural reform, and adapt to address new challenges to the 21st Century world trade system. The United States looks forward to continuing its leadership role in advancing these changes and the broader mission of the World Trade Organization.”