Was Buenos Aires the Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning? The Future of the World Trade Organization



James Bacchus

In all too many minds, the relevance of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is much in doubt. The failure of the 11th Ministerial Conference of the WTO last December in Buenos Aires to complete any new multilateral or other agreements— or even to agree on the traditional declaration concluding the conference—has left many wondering if this is the beginning of the end for the WTO.

Expectations were low in Buenos Aires, and the ministers fulfilled those low expectations. Complicating matters, and further stirring doubts, are the continued assaults of the Trump administration on the WTO, both verbally and in the conduct of U.S. trade policy. Traditional U.S. leadership at the WTO is missing, as members struggle to find a way forward toward further trade liberalization and international economic integration.

Yet, despite the seemingly bleak assessments, some see not the beginning of the end for the WTO, but the end of the beginning. There were clear signs on several fronts in Buenos Aires that WTO members are ready to turn toward “plurilateral” solutions on trade that could, in time, become fully multilateral solutions. Multilateral trade agreements must always be the ultimate goal for the WTO. But there is more than one way to get to multilateralism. Starting with agreements among some, but not yet all, WTO members and then gradually transforming them into fully global agreements appears to be the most promising path to multilateralism in the 21st century.

Digital trade, services trade, fisheries subsidies, environmental goods, investment facilitation, and other issues are all ripe for negotiation and agreement. By taking a plurilateral approach toward multilateralism, the members of the WTO can ensure that this is the end of the beginning—and not the beginning of the end—for the World Trade Organization.


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The report was originally posted here.