Alan Wm. Wolff
Deputy Director General
World Trade Organization (WTO)
I had the good fortune to take part on November 12 in a conference convened by French President Emmanuel Macron to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War. I was also fortunate to arrive in time to listen to a talk by, and some beautiful music from the world-famous cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. He serves as a UN Ambassador for Peace. His message was a gentle one, reminiscent of a holy person, preaching good will among peoples and telling us how he used music as a universal language.
The panel in which I participated, consisting of officers of the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Trade Center, the UN Conference on trade and Development, and the WTO, was assigned the following question for discussion:
The 2008 financial crisis did not trigger any serious protectionist reaction. And yet, 10 years later, declarations of trade war have taken over across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Is there a chance to avoid a spill over venturing us to conflict?
The panelists, with the active help of the audience, broadened the discussion to be more about the future of the world trading system. My message was conveyed in the form of answers to questions put by the moderator and members of the audience. This short summary below of key points made is followed by a note on Trade and Peace which I am sharing with the conference host.
The multilateral trading system was created following the Second World War, along with other multilateral institutions, to avoid a repetition of the errors made following the signing of the armistice in 1918. The primary purpose of the system was to underpin the newly won peace by contributing to reconstruction and development and by raising standards of living, thus making peace more sustainable. While open trade would not guarantee peace but it would give the creation of a lasting peace a better chance. This it did for seven decades, bringing us to the present challenges.
We are in dangerous but not unmanageable circumstances. The measures imposed and threatened have stimulated a positive reaction. For the first time in a generation, there is strong interest in updating the rules of the world trading system. Last December at the Buenos Aires WTO Ministerial, the United States Trade Representative stated that major changes were needed in several specific areas of WTO rules and practice. In May, President Macron called for reform of the WTO. Since then, Trade Ministers have met to discuss the issue in Ottawa, and the EU tabled a detailed list of areas for change. In addition, members accounting for three-quarters of global GDP are gathered in serious discussions of expanding the coverage of the WTO in important new areas such as E-Commerce. In short, very positive outcomes are possible, but first the support for change must be broadened.
As for the current trade hostilities, while there are risks of escalation of both TransAtlantic and Trans-Pacific exchanges of trade restrictions, this need not be the case.
With respect to Trans-Atlantic relations, the European Union and the United States are in talks with an aim to eliminate most barriers to industrial goods. This is all to the good. It has been considered and, on occasion attempted, since the 1960s, and now is re-launched.
With respect to the exchange of increased tariffs between the United States and China, some lessening of tensions cannot be excluded. Both sides might well regard the way to do this by addressing level playing field issues. Every playing field needs to be governed by rules. It is important for the multilateral trading system that trade measures employed be brought increasingly within the rules — as they exist or as they may be agreed going forward.
Devising an effective system of global trading rules requires three areas of scrutiny – having sufficient capability to monitor compliance through assuring transparency (there is a currently a proposal of a number of WTO members including Japan, the EU and the US to accomplish the increased transparency); an ability to make new rules to keep pace with the needs of the world economy; and a functioning dispute settlement system. For the last of these, an appellate function is necessary to make the current dispute settlement system work. Otherwise cases could easily devolve into retaliation and counter-retaliation as no panel decision would be final.
All 164 members of the WTO pay homage to the importance and centrality of the multilateral trading system. That is not enough. At this point we need action in the form of practical steps to solve problems, and we are seeing the beginning of those take shape in discussions about both reform and about what the scope of the WTO rules should be. We need the engagement of the private sector, business, NGOs and the press, to use the current attention that the WTO is attracting, to bring to bear their support of the multilateral trading system and for its improvement.
As for governments, they need to each make net positive contributions to making the system work. By this I mean that investing in a public good, the multilateral trading system, while not as concrete as getting a tariff concession important for a country’s exports, it pays benefits both immediately and for the long term. There is no country, regardless of level of development that cannot make a net positive contribution, whether in the form of specific trade concessions, contributing proposals exercising some leadership function, or supporting others’ proposals. WTO Members are more than parties to a complicated contract. They are citizens in a global community.
Usually change takes a very long time for conceiving ideas, building consensus, honing text and soliciting support. The roughly a decade that was devoted to major multilateral efforts in the past is no longer available. We do not have that much time to use reform to resolve current challenges.
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The views expressed here are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of WITA, its Board or its staff.