World Trade Organization: Overview and Future Direction



Cathleen D. Cimino-Isaacs, Rachel F. Fefer, and Ian F. Fergusson | Congressional Research Service

Historically, the United States’ leadership of the global trading system has ensured the United States a seat at the table to shape the international trade agenda in ways that both advance and defend U.S. interests. The evolution of U.S. leadership and the global trade agenda remain of interest to Congress, which holds constitutional authority over foreign commerce and establishes trade negotiating objectives and principles through legislation. Congress has recognized the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the “foundation of the global trading system” within trade promotion authority (TPA) and plays a direct legislative and oversight role over WTO agreements. The statutory basis for U.S. WTO membership is the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (P.L. 103-465), and U.S. priorities and objectives for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)/WTO have been reflected in various TPA legislation since 1974. Congress also has oversight of the U.S. Trade Representative and other agencies that participate in WTO meetings and enforce WTO commitments.

The WTO is a 164-member international organization that was created to oversee and administer multilateral trade rules, serve as a forum for trade liberalization negotiations, and resolve trade disputes. The United States was a major force behind the establishment of the WTO in 1995, and the rules and agreements resulting from multilateral trade negotiations. The WTO encompassed and succeeded the GATT, established in 1947 among the United States and 22 other countries. Through the GATT and WTO, the United States, with other countries, sought to establish a more open, rules-based trading system in the postwar era, with the goal of fostering international economic cooperation and raising economic prosperity worldwide. Today, 98% of global trade is among WTO members. The WTO is a consensus and member driven organization. Its core principles include nondiscrimination (most favored nation treatment and national treatment), freer trade, fair competition, transparency, and encouraging development. These are enshrined in a series of WTO trade agreements covering goods, agriculture, services, intellectual property rights, and trade facilitation, among other issues. Some countries, including China, have been motivated to join the WTO not just to expand access to foreign markets but to spur domestic economic reforms, help transition to market economies, and promote the rule of law.

The WTO Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU) provides an enforceable means for members to resolve disputes over WTO commitments and obligations. The WTO has processed more than 500 disputes, and the United States has been an active user of the dispute settlement system. Supporters of the multilateral trading system consider the dispute settlement mechanism an important success of the system. At the same time, some members, including the United States, contend it has procedural shortcomings and has exceeded its mandate in deciding cases. Many observers are concerned that the effectiveness of the WTO has diminished since the collapse of the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, which began in 2001, and believe the WTO needs to adopt reforms to continue its role as the foundation of the global trading system. To date, WTO members have been unable to reach consensus for a new comprehensive multilateral agreement on trade liberalization and rules. While global supply chains and technology have transformed international trade and investment, global trade rules have not kept up with the pace of change. Many countries have turned to negotiating free trade agreements (FTAs) outside the WTO as well as plurilateral agreements involving subsets of WTO members rather than all members.

At the latest WTO Ministerial conference in December 2017, no major deliverables were announced. Several members committed to make progress on ongoing talks, such as fisheries subsidies and e-commerce, while other areas remain stalled. While many were disappointed by the limited progress, in the U.S. view, the outcome signaled that “the impasse at the WTO was broken,” paving the way for groups of like minded countries to pursue new work in other key areas. Certain WTO members have begun to explore aspects of reform and future negotiations. Potential reforms concern the administration of the organization, its procedures and practices, and attempts to address the inability of WTO members to conclude new agreements. Proposed DS reforms also attempt to improve the working of the dispute settlement system, particularly the Appellate Body—the seven-member body that reviews appeals by WTO members of a panel’s findings in a dispute case.

Some U.S. frustrations with the WTO are not new and many are shared by other trading partners, such as the European Union. At the same time, the Administration’s overall approach has spurred new questions regarding the future of U.S. leadership and U.S. priorities for improving the multilateral trading system. Concerns have emphasized that the Administration’s recent actions to unilaterally raise tariffs under U.S. trade laws and to possibly impede the functioning of the dispute settlement system might undermine the credibility of the WTO system. A growing question of some observers is whether the WTO would flounder for lack of U.S. leadership, or whether other WTO members like the EU and China taking on larger roles would continue to make it a meaningful actor in the global trade environment. The growing debate over the role and future direction of the WTO may be of interest to Congress. Important issues it may address include how current and future WTO agreements affect the U.S. economy, the value of U.S. membership and leadership in the WTO, whether new U.S. negotiating objectives or oversight hearings are needed to address prospects for new WTO reforms and rulemaking, and the relevant authorities and impact of potential U.S. withdrawal from the WTO on U.S. economic and foreign policy interests. The upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference in June 2020 presents the United States and WTO members with an opportunity to address pressing concerns over reform efforts, ongoing and new negotiations, and the future of the trading system more broadly.


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