Postcard From a Disintegration: Inside the WTO’s Fraying Seams



Keith M. Rockwell | Hinrich Foundation

The World Trade Organization is what is known as a “member-driven” organization. The 164 WTO Members – they are never referred to as Member States because Hong Kong and Macau are regions of China and governments do not agree on the status of Taiwan – make all relevant decisions on the basis of consensus.

It is an awkward way to get things done. Consensus means, in theory, that the hands of all 164 members are on the steering wheel. The reality is that some pairs of hands have a more forceful grip on the wheel than others.

To make things move in Geneva, you need the big players to take control, state what they want, and make clear what they are prepared to do to achieve it. In the past, it has been the United States which drove the agenda, first in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and, since its founding in 1995, in the WTO. Nothing of consequence was achieved without US leadership.

Today, this is no longer the case. Such is the politically toxic nature of trade in the United States today, that the Office of the US Trade Representative has deemed a detached, disinterested approach the nation’s best course of action in trade policy.

Two factors have contributed to the sharp deterioration in US leadership. The first is a bipartisan, ardent anxiety over China. Inside the Beltway, it is widely held that China has somehow rigged the multilateral trading system, shirked its responsibilities, and gamed the dispute settlement function. Such reasoning is flawed and not fully supported by the facts. But it can be attributed to the growing Cold War mentality gripping Washington these days.

Inside the WTOs fraying seams - Hinrich Foundation - Keith Rockwell - January 2023 RV

Keith M. Rockwell is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. Prior to his retirement in June 2022, Keith served as a Director at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and spokesperson for the organization for more than 25 years.

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