Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Strategy for Trade-Security



Mona Pinchis-Paulsen | Journal of International Economic Law


Deliberation of trade security is crucial for maintaining multilateral coordination and enabling governments, businesses, and individuals to navigate global economic networks. World Trade Organization (WTO) members’ mounting invocations of security-based trade restrictiveness increasingly challenge an institution that requires persistent coordination and transparency to function. WTO members need space to discuss—and disagree with—the intersection of security and trade policies. While members make use of existing WTO institutions and procedures, the exceptionalism and secrecy of security hinder notification, and review of security-rooted trade practices. This article provides a descriptive analysis and prescriptions for WTO institutional techniques for addressing members’ security-related measures daily—that is, on a routine basis, via trade policy review and WTO notification processes. It shows that the trade community already possess the tools to manage the growing issue-area of trade and security.


Foreign trade as an instrument of ‘national power’—a power to coerce other states—has long influenced trade relationships. The post–World War II multilateral trading system, however, requires governments to treat trade and security policies analytically separate, though such a separation has always been more theoretical than real. An implicit agreement among the trading community was not to make the post-war General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) about the securitization of trade. Economic interdependence and restoration of the global economy required states to liberalize trade (as a rule) and act to protect their essential security interests (as an exception). To champion trade liberalization as (at least part of) insulation from future war, states carefully presented security concerns as trade interests. Security persisted but was not the language by which trade negotiators and delegations spoke. Still, security and trade interests remained interconnected despite the legal framework that set them up as antinomies.

Today, security and trade pull against one another, each demanding its own ‘exclusivity’. That pull challenges the multilateral trading system, now organized under the World Trade Organization (WTO). International trade policies are increasingly reflecting a national security mentality. Unpredictable dynamics in the global economy, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, foster insecurity. Technological innovations, warming temperatures, and pandemics have altered the prevailing wisdom that international rules foster economic growth. Leading economies are re-evaluating the gains of trade. China and the USA take a ‘combative approach’, aiming to secure their economic and geopolitical interests and weaken competitors in strategically essential sectors. Leaders increasingly caution about the ‘erosion of the multilateral trading system’ and fear that interdependence exposes them to networked coercion. Moreover, the scope for open, non-discriminatory trade will shrink if the larger economy members reorient their engagement around security interests—even more so if they invoke security exceptions without limitations. What is the role of the WTO in facing these persistent crises? Do members possess the institutional support needed to discuss security measures without clearly defined limits or those that do not directly correlate to an identifiable security threat?

The worst outcome will be if members stop using the WTO altogether, bypassing it through unilateral measures. For example, the USA is choosing to ameliorate trade insecurities with select ‘like-minded allies’ through WTO-external diplomatic talks. These initiatives may be productive. Nevertheless, these unilateral activities cut starkly against the WTO’s multilateral nature. Moreover, such detours do nothing to resolve ‘principal antagonisms’ within the global economy or growing tensions between the heterogenous WTO membership. Ultimately, the WTO is at the service of its members who drive its mandate and functions. Members choose how the WTO assists in the development of trade policies for economic resilience in response to the growing reconceptualization and operation of national security priorities.

Without WTO-wide discussions about the growing invocation of security in trade actions, a select group of powerful, advanced economy members will reframe the relationship between trade and security. Due to their relative market strength, these elite members will forge a new status quo for all WTO members, requiring the latter to conform to rules designed by the powerful. However, crucially, this will not occur through established legislative processes to change the existing trade-offs between security and efficiency within the WTO rules architecture. Left unchecked, the WTO will institutionally drift. Without consensus, drift captures an unspoken reorientation of trade towards the terms of the few. Other members invested in an open, global economy are either side-lined, left to pick sides, or forced to prioritize self-sufficiency.

WTO members need space to discuss—and disagree with—the intersection of security and trade policies. Open, frank discussion of trade security is crucial for maintaining multilateral coordination and enabling governments, businesses, and individuals to navigate global economic networks. WTO members talk about security at the WTO with greater frequency. Still, as security becomes less exceptional, members must adapt trade deliberation to the present (and future) reality of trade politics and practices based on security concerns. Discussing the interconnections between trade and security makes it possible for ‘keeping the game going’, as Friedrich Kratochwil put it, ‘by providing the participants [of an institution] with the necessary information’ to allow for “debates” about behaviour and practices. In particular, members need clear strategies to manage the opacity of security interests within an institution designed to facilitate transparent, deliberative processes. Talking and information sharing may seem insufficient, but they remain a critical first step to rethinking how the WTO can remain relevant.

This article proceeds as follows. Section II provides an analytical description of how members reimagined the relationship between essential security interests and trade interests. Section III then evaluates WTO institutional procedures for addressing WTO notification and review. Section IV explains how members use existing WTO procedures to raise security concerns and justify trade actions, with an assessment of the implications of security exceptions in the covered WTO agreements. Section V turns prescriptive and assesses how WTO members can build upon existing techniques to develop a sound infrastructure for members changing trade policies and practices based on security, resilience, or efficiency. Section VI concludes.



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