Trade is at the forefront of international tensions in 2019. Political developments in the United States and Europe, and the rise of China as a peer competitor to the transatlantic economies, have led many to question the fundamental assumptions and operations supporting the World Trade Organization (WTO). Chinese mercantilism, the Trump administration’s aggressive use of unilateral tariff measures, and the inability of WTO members to reach consensus on expanding its disciplines to important new sectors and forms of commerce in the modern economy reinforce the critique of the WTO. Expansion in global trade, one of the great engines of growth and progress in bringing billions of people out of poverty since 1945, has slowed considerably in the last two decades. In 2018, however, several constructive efforts to craft reforms for this successor institution of the Bretton Woods system are engendering some hope that the WTO can be adapted to meet the needs of the contemporary economy.
The first basket of problems revolves around a lack of WTO disciplines for newer sectors like services, including those associated with the emerging digital economy; for state-owned enterprises; for intellectual property protection; and for cross-border investments. The other main issues concern the sometimes ineffective and bounded operations of the WTO itself. Questions have been raised, notably by the United States, over the slow and inconsistent enforcement of existing WTO rules, and over rulings by judges in the Appellate Body which overstep the limits of existing WTO rules, undertake interpretations of domestic laws, and reinterpret facts established by earlier dispute panel
decisions. This is the biggest issue now dividing US and EU thinking on the reform of the WTO.
The EU, Canada, Japan, the United States and other members have begun offering concrete proposals for addressing these problems, and the G20 political leaders gave a strong endorsement to their efforts in the December 2018 communique of the Buenos Aires summit. Ideas for new rules are being tested in sub-global trade agreements like the new North American and Trans-Pacific pacts and EU free trade agreements with Canada and Japan. Incorporation of new rules into the global WTO is extremely difficult; full consensus among its 164 members is required for the adoption of any new disciplines or internal operations. To overcome that impediment, this paper suggests that plurilateral agreements, like the Information Technology Agreement of 1997, be employed to establish and test new rules needed for the 21st-century economy. Some use of supermajority decision making instead of the consensus rule may also help advance the creation of new rules and redress weaknesses in WTO operations. The role of transatlantic leadership, finally, is emphasized as a key to building broad political support needed to achieve substantive reform.
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