Amb. Robert Lighthizer

USTR Lighthizer’s Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal — How to Set World Trade Straight

Most countries and customs territories that are Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) agree that the WTO is need of reform to make it more relevant and to address the challenges with the current system that the first 25 1/2 years of operation of the WTO have laid bare.

The United States has raised concerns for more than twenty years with the Dispute Settlement System and under the Trump Administration laid out detailed critiques of the Appellate Body and various deviations from the agreed text of the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU). The U.S. refusal to permit new Appellate Body members to be selected until its concerns were addressed led to the effective (temporary) shutdown of the Appellate Body from December 11, 2019 for new appeals. While trading partners put forward various proposals to address U.S. concerns, the U.S. has viewed it as critical to have Members discuss why the Appellate Body has been willing to depart from clear requirements in the DSU.

Similarly, the United States has been raising concerns about self-selection of developing country status with the resulting use of special and differential treatment provisions by some three quarters of the WTO Members. The basic U.S. position has been that there has been enormous economic development by many countries over the last twenty-five years such that a static system of designation is unwarranted. The U.S. has proposed various factual criteria to determine whether a given country should be eligible for developing country status. A few countries have indicated that they will not seek special and differential treatment in ongoing and future negotiations.

Similarly, the United States has argued that the WTO should reaffirm that the WTO rules envision Members who operate under market economy principles and that non-market economic systems (including so-called state capitalism economies) are not appropriate for WTO rules. The U.S. has also been working with the EU and Japan to develop a proposal on industrial subsidies, state-owned enterprises and forced technology transfer — all issues viewed as outgrowths of non-market economies.

While the U.S. has not presented a formal statement at the WTO on the subject, the U.S. has also raised concerns about the level of tariff bindings and the lack of progress in obtaining further liberalization over the last twenty-five years, suggesting a need for a rebalancing of tariff bindings.

USTR Lighthizer’s Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal, How to Set World Trade Straight

While the WTO is in the process of selecting a new Director-General with the current Director-General stepping down on August 31, much attention has understandably been on the eight candidates seeking to become the new Director-General.

Many government officials around the world are on holiday. In the U.S., the 2020 Presidential election process and campaigns are heating up with elections for the President and for the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate set for November 3. One would expect that various actions by the current U.S. Administration would be aimed at election political needs. The recently announced agreement between the U.S. and the EU to reduce tariffs on U.S. lobsters exported to the EU and a reduction of various tariffs that the US has on products of interest to the EU is likely one such example, with lobster fishermen in Maine in trouble with the loss of the EU market.

Last week, Ambassador Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, published an op ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “How to Set World Trade Straight”. Whether the op ed is meant for domestic consumption during the election cycle or is an amplification of U.S. positions already taken in Geneva is not clear but is an interesting review of the current Administration’s concerns with the global trading system.

The piece by Amb. Lighthizer reviews the need for WTO reform, and notes various problems that he sees with the current WTO: (1) uneven tariffs; (2) the nonappicability of rules to some Members; (3) the huge number of free trade agreements which may lock in protectionism and by definition aren’t applied on a most favored nation (MFN) principle; (4) the shift in the system from negotiations to litigation because of the current dispute settlement system; (5) the inability to address distortions created by non-market economies.

Amb. Lighthizer then calls for WTO Members to recommit “to the principles of market reform and most-favored-nation status.” He then identifies five reforms that are needed:

  1. find baseline tariffs that all Members will apply with limited exceptions;
  2. limit Free Trade Agreements to those fostering regional integration;
  3. see that large and advanced economies are not eligible for special and differential treatment;
  4. adopt new rules to address economic distortions caused by China’s state capitalism system;
  5. overhaul the dispute settlement system to be more like commercial arbitration.

Amb. Lighthizer views that the two options for global trade are (1) “a WTO that is truly committed to most-favored-nation norms and focused on multilateral trade negotiations and (2) a system of bilateral trade agreements. While U.S. could go either way, it is willing to work with WTO Members to achieve the first outcome.

Analysis of the Five Proposals

Free Trade Agreements (FTAs)

Of the five proposals included in Amb. Lighthizer’s op ed, only the second deals with an issue (the increasing number of Free Trade Agreements) where the U.S. has not identified problems with the status quo at the WTO. Amb. Lighthizer’s concern about the hundreds of free trade agreements that have been created has a focus on the European Union where the EU has some 72 FTAs and works to include provisions that are not part of the WTO and that the U.S. views as simply protectionist, such as geographical indications on food, and which harm U.S. and other exporters.

While there is no question that FTAs have resulted in a fair amount of trade diversion and that countries negotiating FTAs often add topics not part of the WTO of interest to them, it is hard to imagine WTO Members agreeing to shut down the vast majority of FTAs that have been established. Looking just at the U.S., many of its existing FTAs would not qualify under Amb. Lighthizer’s test — those with Israel, Korea, Singapore, Australia, Oman, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, CAFTA, Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru (though the Central and South American countries could fit under regional integration if expanded beyond North America). Similarly, current negotiations with Japan, with the EU, with the United Kingdom and with Kenya wouldn’t qualify.

So it is hard to see how WTO Members agree to modify the right to establish Free Trade Agreements. And changing GATT Articles would be a very time consuming process even if there were interest among Members.

No one has brought a dispute at the WTO (or at the GATT before 1995) on whether a particular FTA meets the actual requirements of the WTO. Nor has any Member challenged aspects of an FTA that imposes conditions that adversely affect trade of other Members where the conditions are not part of a WTO Agreement and otherwise are inconsistent with WTO principles. Thus, there could be ways to address some of the concerns that Amb. Lighthizer has with FTAs. But disputes won’t return MFN to the primacy role Amb. Lighthizer is espousing.

Special and differential treatment

Amb. Lighthizer’s third proposal to limit which countries have access to special and differential treatment is consistent with the papers that the U.S. has presented at the WTO. In prior posts, I have reviewed both the U.S. proposal and the views of the eight candidates to become the next Director-General on the issue. See December 28, 2019, WTO Reform – Will Limits on Who Enjoys Special and Differential Treatment Be Achieved?; August 13, 2020, The race to become the next WTO Director-General – where candidates are on important issues:  eligibility for special and differential treatment/self selection as a developing country,

New rules to address economic distortions caused by China’s state capitalism system

Amb. Lighthizer’s fourth proposal reflects the ongoing U.S. concern about whether current WTO rules adequately discipline distortions flowing from the economic system of China (and other countries with similar systems). As reviewed above, the U.S. has sought reconfirmation of core WTO principles that rules apply to market economies and has worked with the EU and Japan to develop proposals (not yet presented at the WTO) on enhanced subsidy rules on industrial goods and new rules on state-owned enterprises and forced technology transfer. The fourth proposal is focused on new and modified rules.

In prior posts, I have reviewed both the U.S. proposal and the views of the eight candidates to become the next Director-General on the issue. See February 22, 2020, WTO Reform – Addressing The Disconnect Between Market and Non-Market Economies,; August 19, 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 2, comments by the candidates,; 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,

Baseline tariffs that all Members will apply with limited exceptions

The first proposal from Amb. Lighthizer provides for the first time some content to his earlier comments that tariff bindings needed to be rebalanced. The proposal would seem to flow from Pres. Trump’s concern about trade deficits the U.S. runs with many countries, the lack of trade liberalization negotiations in the last twenty-five years, and the large variation in bound rates with developed countries typically having very low rates compared to large and advanced developing countries.

There has never been since the GATT’s start in the late 1940s an effort to rebalance tariffs like that envisioned by Amb. Lighthizer. His proposal would flatten tariff bindings for nearly all countries and would result in upward movement of tariff bindings for some products from developed countries. There has never been the view within the GATT or now the WTO that one tariff rate on a product fits all countries (with limited exceptions).

It will undoubtedly be helpful to have WTO Members focus on the imbalances that have arisen as multilateral trade liberalization has ground to a halt and advanced developing countries have typically not taken the lead in purusing tariff reductions among those with continued high tariff bindings. That said, it is hard to see how the proposal has actual legs in terms of any future WTO reform.

Reform of the dispute settlement system

The fifth proposal by Amb. Lighthizer deals with an issue, reform of the dispute settlement system, which has occupied a lot of time and attention at the WTO. However, the proposal put forward by Amb. Lighthizer is different from the problems that the U.S. has been chronicling in various statements and papers over the last several years.

The DSU has a two-tiered dispute settlement system – panel review with possible appeal of legal issues to the Appellate Body. Nearly all WTO Members actively support a two-tiered system and many have set up an interim multiparty appeal arbitration agreement to provide them with a substitute until the impasse created by the United States is resolved.

Amb. Lighthizer’s proposal reflects U.S. concerns with the apparent inability to limit the Appellate Body to the role it was given by the DSU and the general unwillingness of other Members, particularly the EU, to agree to the proper role of the Appellate Body. While the proposal from Amb. Lighthizer isn’t two tiered, it does have binding effect on the parties to the particular dispute between them without creating precedent.

As Amb. Lighthizer’s proposal would require a reworking of the DSU, if accepted by other Members as a road forward, resolution would likely be years away.

I have written extensively on the impasse on the dispute settlement system as well as reviewing the views of the eight candidates to be the next Director-General. See, e.g., August 10, 2020, The race to become the next WTO Director-General – where candidates are on important issues:  reform of the Appellate Body,; August 9, 2020,  USTR Lighthizer on WTO dispute settlement – answers to Congressional questions from June 17 hearings,; July 12, 2020, WTO Appellate Body reform – revisiting thoughts on how to address U.S. concerns,


Considering the timing of the op ed, it is hard to know if the intended audience is largely U.S. workers or is intended for an international audience considering WTO reform.

Some of the five proposals, regardless of intellectual merit, seem certain to be viewed as nonstarters, although potentially leading to discussion of key principles of the WTO in Geneva. If the intent is to have items that can be set aside if others are achieved, then Amb. Lighthizer’s five proposals may be a successful approach. To the extent that all five are must have issues for the U.S., one doesn’t need to worry about WTO reform during the next four and a half years as it is hard to imagine the circumstances when all are accepted by the WTO membership.