Revitalizing the World Trade Organization



Clete Willems | The Atlantic Council

All three pillars of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have played a key role in promoting “rules-based” international trade for the past twenty-five years.

  1. Negotiations: The negotiations creating the WTO were a major success, leading to a broad range of new rules that prohibit members from raising tariffs beyond agreed-upon levels, restrict non-tariff barriers, and ban discriminatory trade measures. Since then, a few negotiations have helped further lower barriers, including the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and Information Technology Agreement (ITA). Today, average applied tariffs are approximately half of what they were when the WTO was created, and numerous unfair trade practices have been discontinued.2
  2. Implementation and Monitoring: The WTO recognizes that the implementation and monitoring of commitments are essential to maintaining the integrity of an effective rules-based system. Accordingly, the WTO includes mechanisms to track implementation and rules that require members to notify it of changes in trade policies and share information on trade-distorting practices (e.g., subsidies). Transparency and information sharing promote business predictability, while the discussion of trade-distorting policies often leads to their modification or abandonment before adoption.
  3. Dispute Settlement: The WTO dispute-settlement system helps resolve trade disputes to minimize unilateral action and cycles of retaliation. Many countries use the dispute-settlement system to challenge adverse measures. In most cases, the member losing the dispute changes the offending measure. In other cases, that member exercises its sovereignty and chooses not to change the policy, freely accepting the consequences (retaliatory tariffs). Additionally, many disputes are settled before litigation commences.

The world has changed considerably since the WTO’s creation. It has experienced the rise of the Internet and other advanced technologies, China’s economic expansion, greater skepticism about the benefits of trade, and greater concern about income inequality. The world has changed, and so must the WTO. At the same time, the WTO itself has not met expectations. WTO negotiations have not readily facilitated new rules or additional market-access openings, the implementation and monitoring pillar has not held countries accountable for ignoring its requirements, and the dispute-settlement system has not strictly applied the rules as negotiated. As a result, the WTO is falling far short of its promise and mandate in different ways.

WTO negotiations have failed to update international trade rules to: account for non-market economies and deal with related unfair trade practices, such as forced technology transfer and massive industrial subsidies; account for new technologies, such as the Internet; improve commitments in key areas covered in detail by free-trade agreements (FTAs), such as intellectual property and services; and fully address politically important policy issues, such as labor and the environment. WTO negotiations have also failed to substantially lower or equalize tariff treatment among major economies.

The ability of large emerging economies to self-declare “developing-country” status and avoid taking on the same commitments as competitors has compounded the challenge. Worse yet, many countries claim that trade liberalization and the WTO rules that promote it are anti-development, undermining the WTO’s core mission.

Compliance with the WTO’s implementation and monitoring function has not been widespread, with many members failing to follow the basic notification requirements necessary to ensure the transparency and predictability of trade.

WTO dispute settlement has drifted from its original design. It has failed to properly adjudicate certain disputes, including by inventing new rules without consensus and improperly applying the rules to non-market economies;  allowed the WTO Secretariat to wield too much power in decision-making; and taken too long, depriving workers and businesses of real-time solutions.

Accordingly, all three pillars require reform to ensure the WTO retains a constructive and central role in resolving disputes before they spiral out of control, and in shaping international trade rules and behavior. When the WTO is functioning properly, it provides a mechanism to enforce agreed-upon rules in a predictable manner and create new rules to protect workers and businesses. When the rules are inadequate and disputes take too long, countries are more inclined to adopt unfair practices, and may be forced to respond unilaterally to protect their interests.

WTO reform provides the quickest and most constructive path to adequately address China’s unfair trade practices. The US-China Phase One trade deal made important progress on certain structural issues, but did not meaningfully address industrial subsidies or state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and it is unlikely that China will ever address these matters bilaterally given the government’s central role in its economy. Therefore, concerted multilateral pressure that paints these policies as a threat to the global trading system as a whole is necessary to effectuate change. In many respects, the WTO provides the ideal forum for countries to work together to persuade China to change its most problematic behavior. The WTO already has a core set of principles, such as non-discrimination, that are critical to countering such practices, and an existing infrastructure for negotiating, monitoring, and enforcing those rules. The WTO’s membership is also critical—it includes many countries impacted by these issues, as well as China itself. The broad reach of the WTO will also help ensure other countries do not adopt similar non-policies.

The United States has been calling for significant WTO reform for years, and many countries have recently joined the chorus. For example, in December 2018, all Group of Twenty (G20) members endorsed the following language in the leaders’ statement: International trade and investment are important engines of growth, productivity, innovation, job creation and development. We recognize the contribution that the multilateral trading system has made to that end. The system is currently falling short of its objectives and there is room for improvement. We therefore support the necessary reform of the WTO to improve its functioning.

Despite these high-level statements, WTO members have struggled to gain momentum toward tangible reform. Some blame the United States for refusing to offer specific proposals on dispute settlement, the European Union (EU) for an unwillingness to meaningfully address US concerns on this issue, China for refusing to engage on proposals related to its practices, and India for leading the fight to preserve preferential developing country status for large, emerging economies.

Regardless of who is to blame, the WTO is in crisis, and momentum for ambitious reform must be generated before the system loses its relevance. To catalyze momentum, members should quickly resolve ongoing negotiations while “thinking big” about the future and significantly raising their levels of ambition. The successful conclusion of ongoing negotiations, such as those on fisheries subsidies, will create new confidence in the WTO by demonstrating that the system is still capable of solving problems. But, negotiations will not solve the biggest problems facing the system. Therefore, even as members seek to make incremental progress, they increase their ambition with respect to the overall scope of reform needed to create a system fit for purpose in the twenty-first century and on “outside-the-box” ideas to solve some of the more intractable problems before it is too late.

Any successful WTO reform effort requires the United States and the European Union to better cooperate and coordinate. The United States and EU share common values, jointly spearheaded the creation of the original international trading system, and have both used it to promote trade-liberalizing, market-oriented policies around the globe. The economies of the United States and the EU are also equally challenged by China’s policies. If they cannot reach consensus on how to fix the WTO, it is inconceivable that the rest of the world could do so.

To this end, this paper proposes an ambitious WTO reform proposal that both the United States and the European Union should be able to endorse, and ultimately work together to promote. In particular, a joint US-EU WTO reform proposal should

  • address problems with all three pillars—negotiations, implementation and monitoring, and dispute settlement; these functions complement each other and reform is needed in all three to make the system work as a whole;
  • address the most difficult issues, including China’s unfair trade policies and how to fit a non-market economy into a system built by market economies;
    • create new rules to address issues that have emerged since the WTO was created, such as digital trade, and upgrade existing agreements, such as the intellectual property and services agreements, to the higher standards included in many FTAs;
  • include more robust commitments on politically important issues, such as labor and the environment, which are critical to regaining domestic support for trade;
  • eliminate the unfairly high tariff rates imposed by certain countries, and bring greater parity in tariff levels among major economic powers;
  • promote liberalization by all members, not just “developed” economies, while recognizing the unique challenges faced by least-developed countries (LDCs) and allowing for differential treatment predicated on fact-based need;
  • consider novel approaches to rescue the negotiating function, such as the use of plurilateral agreements that only benefit participants (non-most favored nation), or non-binding commitments for LDCs as an initial approach in certain areas;
  • increase high-level political engagement from capitals to promote greater ambition in Geneva;
  • hold countries accountable for failing to follow fundamental rules related to transparency;
  • fully address the underlying shortcomings of the dispute settlement system by
    • ensuring that adjudicators better respect the limited mandate provided by WTO members, and do not create rules to which members never agreed;
    • making institutional reforms to improve the transparency and accountability of the process, and address the imbalance in decision-making between the WTO Secretariat and the appointed adjudicators; and
    • improving the system’s efficiency so it serves as a viable “real-time” alternative to unilateral action; and
  • recognize that fixing the negotiating function is critical to fixing dispute settlement in a sustainable manner.

The will of all WTO members will ultimately be necessary to achieve the broad-based reforms envisioned in this paper, but improving cooperation and coordination between the United States and European Union is a necessary start. Section II of this paper further outlines some of the existing problems with the WTO system, while Section III details a joint US-EU reform agenda.

To download the full report, please click here.


Clete R. Willems is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center. Mr. Willems is a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where he advises multinational companies, investors, and trade associations on international economic law and policy matters. Until April 2019, Mr. Willems was Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economics and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council.