“The values of the WTO” — do Members and the final Director-General candidates endorse all of them?

On November 6, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff presented comments to the UN Chief Executives Board. In a press release, entitled “DDG Wolff shares views with international agency heads on future of multilateral cooperation,” the Secretariat provides a short introduction and then includes DDG Wolff’s comments including an Annex. See WTO, WTO and Other Organizations, DDG Wolff shares views with international agency heads on future of multilateral cooperation, 6 November 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/igo_06nov20_e.htm. The statement by DDG Wolff is worth reading in its entirety and presents information on the effects of the pandemic and the future of multilateralism including reforms needed for the WTO. However, for purposes of this post, I will focus on Annex 1 to his statement, entitled “The Values of the World Trade Organization. The Annex is copied below and generally reflects views DDG Wolff has presented in the past.

Annex I

The Values of the World Trade Organization

“In the current upsurge in criticism of the inadequacies of the collective responses to the pandemic, the WTO is receiving heightened scrutiny, and more urgent calls for WTO reform. It is necessary to understand the values that the multilateral trading system is designed to promote before it can be reformed.

“A serious inquiry into this subject would serve three purposes:

“to know the value of what we have in the current system,

“to determine if the values of the current system enjoy the support of all WTO members, and

“to address the degree to which the WTO is of sufficient continuing relevance as it is at present or whether it needs fundamental change.

“WTO members can make progress toward improving the organization to help it to create a better world through building on the values that are inherent in the system. These include –

Stability and peace — The original mission of the multilateral trading system was to enhance economic growth to achieve stability and support peace; today the WTO fosters integration of conflicted countries into the world economy.

Well-being — At its core, the organization is about the economic advancement of the people whom its members represent. Well-being is defined to include creating jobs and, as we are finding out, it also includes health;

Rule of law — The enforceability of obligations is a key distinguishing feature of the WTO as compared with most other international endeavours;

Openness – The multilateral trading system rests upon the principle that to the extent provided within the bounds of the WTO agreements, markets will be open to international trade and trade is to be as free from distortions as possible;

Equality — Equality among members provides the opportunity for each member to participate in the organization, and its rights and obligations, to the extent of its capabilities;

Sovereignty — Sovereignty is preserved — no decision taken within the WTO is to have an automatic effect on the laws or actions of any member;

Development — Fostering development to allow all members to benefit equally from the rights and undertake equally the obligations of the WTO.

International cooperation — Cooperation is a shared responsibility of membership to enable the organization to function.

Sustainability — There is increasingly an attitude of care among members for stewardship of the planet and its inhabitants.

The primacy of market forces — Commercial considerations are to determine competitive outcomes.

Convergence —The WTO is not simply about coexistence; differences among members affecting trade which deviate from the principles governing the WTO, its core values, are to be progressively overcome.

Reciprocity — Broadly defined reciprocity is required for negotiations to succeed.

Balance — is provided:

“Through each member’s judgment of the costs and benefits of the rights it enjoys and the obligations it has undertaken;

“Through its view of how its costs and benefits compare with those of other members;

“Through a member’s view of its freedom of action in relation to the freedom of action for others, and

“Specifically, through its judgment of whether it has sufficient freedom to act to temper its commitments for trade liberalization (openness) with measures designed to deal with any harms thereby caused.

Trust — International trade would largely cease if trade-restrictive measures that were inconsistent with the rules were as a regular matter put into place and only removed prospectively through lengthy litigation.

Morality — in its absence, it would be hard to fully explain the provision addressing pharmaceutical availability in health emergencies. The 1994 Marrakech Declaration states that the WTO was being created to reflect the widespread desire to operate in a fairer and more open multilateral trading system.

Universality — Membership is open to all who are willing to negotiate entry.”

Many of these “values of the WTO” are not controversial. Two are critical to the direction of the WTO moving forward — the primacy of market forces and convergence. These values are viewed as critical by the United States and as central by the EU, Japan, Brazil and others. China’s economic system is viewed as inconsistent with these values. See, e.g., February 22, 2020, WTO Reform – Addressing The Disconnect Between Market and Non-Market Economies, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/02/22/wto-reform-addressing-the-disconnect-between-market-and-non-market-economies/; Statement from Brazil, Japan and the United States, Importance of Market-Oriented Conditions to the World Trading System, WT/GC/W/803/Rev. 1 (2 October 2020); CHINA’S TRADE-DISRUPTIVE ECONOMIC MODEL,

China rejects the claim that its economic system is properly the subject of WTO scrutiny or that it hasn’t engaged in “reform”. Coexistence, not convergence is China’s view of the appropriate value within the WTO. See, e.g., Statement of H.E. Ambassador Zhang Xiangchen of China at the General Council Meeting (Item 7), October 13, 2020, http://wto2.mofcom.gov.cn/article/chinaviewpoins/202010/20201003007644.shtml; CHINA AND THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION, COMMUNICATION FROM CHINA, 19 July 2018, WT/GC/749; General Council, MINUTES OF THE MEETING, 26 July 2018, WT/GC/M/173 (5 October 2018)(pages 29-41). And, of course, while China is the largest economy with an economic system at odds with market-economy conditions, it is not the only one.

Importantly, the candidate found through consultations with the WTO membership to be most likely to attract consensus and hence be recommended by the Chair of the General Council and his facilitators to become the next Director-General of the WTO, Dr. Ngozi Oknojo-Iweala of Nigeria, has taken the view that the WTO’s role is not to exclude any economic system but is rather to determine if different economic systems create distortions in trade that need to be addressed through modifications to the rules. See, e.g., August 19, 2020 [updated August 27], The race to become the next WTO Director-General – where the candidates stand on important issues:  convergence vs. coexistence of different economic systems; possible reform of rules to address distortions from such economic systems – Part 2, comments by the candidates, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/08/19/the-race-to-become-the-next-wto-director-general-where-the-candidates-stand-on-important-issues-convergence-vs-coexistence-of-different-economic-systems-possible-reform-of-rules-to-addre/; August 17, 2020, The race to become the next WTO Director-General – where the candidates stand on important issues:  convergence vs. coexistence of different economic systems; possible reform of rules to address distortions from such economic systems – Part 1, background on issues, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/08/17/the-race-to-become-the-next-wto-director-general-where-the-candidates-stand-on-important-issues-convergence-vs-coexistence-of-different-economic-systems-possible-reform-of-rules-to-address-dist/.

Here is what I had written up based on Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s participation in a WITA webinar on Jly 21 and her answer to specific questions. The webinar can be found at https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-wto-dg-candidate-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala/.

“Q: On resetting of tariff commitments (comment from USTR Lighthizer as a problem within the WTO based on changing economic development of many countries), would this be in the best interest of the system? 

“A:  This is a critical question and issue.  Renegotiating any agreement would require consensus building that would be very difficult to achieve.  That would certainly be true on bound tariffs. The balance of rights and obligations raised by the United States flows from the concerns about state-led economies and state-owned enterprises and whether such economies belong in the system.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala stated that the WTO is not there to comment on the economy of any Member.  In her view, the key question is what disciplines does the WTO have around any issue that arises.  Are the disciplines sufficient to address the imbalances in rights and obligations that may arise?  We need to start there.  What are the fundamental issues —  state-owned enterprises (SOEs), public body.  Can we come to agreement on the meaning of the term public body?  Can we tighten subsidy disciplines that already exist or can we negotiate new subsidy or other disciplines to address the concerns that arise from these types of economies? That is the approach all Members should be pursuing. 

“Q: On industrial subsidies, China has signaled that they will oppose tightening disciplines.  The U.S., EU and Japan have been working on a proposal and discussing with some Members.  How can the Director-General help the membership navigate these issues? 

“A:  If Dr. Okonjo-Iweala becomes the next Director-General, she would encourage that proposals from the U.S., EU and Japan be tabled so all Members can see what they are and how acceptable they are to other Members (including China).  Let’s start to work with an actual proposal.  Sometimes countries are not as far away as one might think.  Members need to work on a specific proposal and see what happens.”


The WTO is a different organization in 2020 than it was when it started in 1995 or when its basic structure and agreements were being negotiated during 1986-1994. Major economies have joined and some have economic systems that are significantly different than the traditional economies who led the GATT. The question of how to deal with different economic systems within the global trading system has not been addressed directly although some would argue that the U.S., EU and others have worked hard during accession negotiations to get commitments from acceding countries to engage in reform if the economy is based on state-control or other deviations from a market economy. For an economy like China’s, there were early reforms, some of which have been reversed over time and others which were never in fact implemented.

While evaluation of distortions caused by different economic systems is certainly an approach that can be pursued, it starts from a premise of coexistence of economic systems within the WTO and assumes rules can be formed that will adequately address all distortions created by non-market factors in a given economy. But the “convergence” value and the “primacy of market forces” value are fundametal to a system where the results of competition will be viewed as acceptable by all Members. In a consensus system, the refusal of a major player like China to agree to these values limits the likely options to other Members but clearly endangers the ability of the WTO to fulfil its core functions in ways that are acceptable to all.

That the likely next Director-General has taken a position that is at odds with the two WTO values identified in Annex 1 of DDG Wolff’s presentation from November 6 is understandable in a consensus system where there is obvious disagreement among WTO Members on the particular values. However, if moving forward with reform, the WTO membership and its Director-General fail to get Members to agree on the core values, such failure will ensure the WTO will not be the sole arbitrator of trade matters going forward.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: