The World Trade Organization has 164 Members at present with 23 more countries or territories in the process of accession. Nearly all international trade in goods and services is handled by WTO Members and those seeking accession.
At the beginning of 2020, the WTO officially turned 25 years old. Despite some successes in the first 25 years in terms of negotiated improvements, the WTO set of agreements are largely reflective of the world in the 1980s. Advances in technology, manufacturing make-up and importance of certain service sectors (e.g., e-commerce) are not covered by the existing agreements.
The WTO’s negotiating function has been nearly moribund on a multilateral level for more than a decade, with most successes at the WTO keyed to actions by plurilateral groups of Members (action by the willing). A system built on consensus decision making has been the hallmark of activity during the GATT and now during the WTO years but has proven unworkable in moving many topics forward amongst an expanded membership.
Similarly, the dispute settlement function of the WTO, long referred to as the “jewel” of the WTO, has been in a state of crisis for the last several years and now has a nonfunctioning Appellate Body (“AB”) as longstanding systemic concerns of the United States about the Appellate Body’s operation and adherence to the Dispute Settlement Understanding (“DSU”) have led to the United States blocking appointments of Appellate Body members until the system is corrected consistent with the DSU. With only one of seven AB members still in place as of December 11, 2019, the AB is unable to hear appeals (as all appeals must be heard by three AB members).
At the same time, many WTO Members have not kept current with notification requirements contained in each Agreement and intended to help Members understand actions of trading partners and their likely compliance with WTO Agreement obligations. This lack of full transparency limits the ability of Members to address issues and seek compliance with underlying obligations.
With the increased importance of China and other countries with economic systems not consistent with the GATT’s and now WTO’s architecture, there have also grown concerns by some Members on the ability of the WTO to handle different economic systems under the existing rules with the U.S., EU and Japan seeking new rules addressing some of the major elements flowing from the different systems.
The WTO, unlike other multilateral institutions, has a process of self-selection of developing country status. Least developed countries do have a clear definition consistent with other organizations. As there has been substantial economic development of many countries describing themselves as “developing” during the first 25 years of the WTO’s existence, there is conflict on the need to change current classification and/or the need for special and differential treatment.
On top of all of these ongoing concerns, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in WTO Members acting first for their own domestic interests, particularly in light of huge shortfalls in global supplies and capacity for medical supplies versus the needs of countries facing spikes in the number of cases. The result has been dozens of export restraints (styled as temporary) and dozens of unilateral actions by countries to reduce duties, simplify or prioritize entry procedures for medical supplies. While the WTO has established a webpage for COVID-19 information and provides information on actions taken by Members (either export restraints or import liberalizing), the WTO Members have not agreed on a course of action for all Members to pursue.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also disrupted the functioning of the WTO as in-person meetings have been cancelled for the last several months, and many developing countries have insisted that virtual meetings not be used for decision making, essentially halting the negotiations on areas like fisheries subsidies.
The challenges reviewed above raise the question about the WTO’s continued relevance and as importantly what reforms are needed to restore the WTO’s relevance going forward. The short-term challenges for the WTO are compounded by the decision by Director-General Azevedo to step down at the end of August which will divert much energy at the WTO into the process for finding a replacement Director-General.
Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff’s virtual presentation at a webinar hosted by the Korean International Trade Association
Earlier today, the WTO’s Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff made a virtual presentation in a webinar that was hosted by the Korean International Trade Association. The title of the presentation was “COVID-19 and the Future of World Trade. A link to the presentation can be found here. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_27may20_e.htm.
Everyone interested in the future of the multilateral trading system should take the time to read DDG Wolff’s presentation. The presentation reviews actions needed by WTO Members to respond to COVID-19, measures WTO Members can take to assist with the economic recovery from the pandemic, and systemic reform that WTO Members should consider. It is the last of these that takes up the bulk of the presentation.
In talking about reform, DDG Wolff states that —
“It is necessary to understand what values the multilateral trading system is designed to promote before it can be reformed.
“A serious inquiry into this subject would serve three purposes:
“(1) to know the value of what we have in the current system,
“(2) to determine if the values of the current system enjoy the support of all WTO Members, and
“(3) to address the degree to which the WTO is of sufficient continuing relevance as it is at present or whether it needs fundamental change.
“My list of the underlying values of the WTO has 16 entries. They include a number of basic principles.
“The first two, not obvious to all of us today, are supporting peace and stability. This was the key concern of the founders of the multilateral trading system in 1948 and the central objective of conflict-affected and fragile acceding members today.
“Other values, such as nondiscrimination, transparency, reciprocity, international cooperation and the rule of law are more obvious. Still others are more nuanced, less obvious perhaps, and emerge only upon reflection. They include well-being, equality, sovereignty, universality, development, market forces, convergence and morality.
“A recent addition to the list is sustainability.
“A serious discussion of WTO reform is long overdue. The pandemic simply adds to the urgency of it taking place.”
Not surprising, DDG Wolff’s review of the sixteen entries is well done and presents a much broader understanding of the importance and value of a global trading system than trade negotiators, businesses, workers, and governments generally bring to the table.
I won’t review the presentation in detail as the value of the presentation in my view is in reviewing the entirety. While DDG Wolff presents the detailed analysis as a possible road to a better future, there are issues identified which similarly suggest the need for a new set of agreements. Consider his discussion of “convergence”:
“A corollary of the principle that market forces are to dictate competitive outcomes is that the rules of the WTO are based implicitly, but without doubt, on convergence and not coexistence. If the desire is to have systems where market forces are not allowed to operate and deliver results, an underlying unstated assumption of the multilateral trading system would not be valid.
“Coexistence would require a different WTO. Where there is no agreement on convergence, a new modus vivendi will inevitably be sought. The arrangement is likely to settle at a lower level of trade than the WTO rules would otherwise provide.”
The United States has in fact raised this exact issue with the WTO Membership in reviewing the market economy basis of the WTO and the incompatibility of state-directed/controlled economies like that of the People’s Republic of China (and others).
Will WTO Members be able to rise to the current needs to engage in reform that supports the 16 principles reviewed in DDG Wolff’s paper? The future relevance of the WTO and the future dynamism of the global trading system depend on it.