WITA Webinar: Three Former USTRs on the WTO in a Time of Change




On Thursday, July 16th, WITA hosted a webinar with three former USTRs to discuss the WTO in a time of change. This discussion brings forward some of the main issues that the World Trade Organization is undergoing and how they can resolve it. Each former USTR shared their analysis of the future of the WTO.

 WITA Webinar Featuring: 

  • Ambassador Michael Froman, U.S. Trade Representative, 2013-2017
  • Ambassador Susan Schwab, U.S. Trade Representative, 2006-2009
  • Ambassador Carla Hills, U.S. Trade Representative, 1989-1993
  • Moderator: Wendy Cutler, Vice President, and Managing Director, Washington D.C. office of the Asia Society Policy Institute

Webinar Summary:

Moderator Wendy Cutler began the webinar with a question about which qualities the panelists would like to see in the next Director General of the WTO. Ambassador Carla Hills expressed her desire for a DG with experience in trade and economic policy, a deep understanding of the WTO as an institution, and management skills that “pack a punch.” Ambassador Susan Schwab echoed these sentiments, adding that someone who acts as more of a facilitator than an expert might be beneficial for bringing the members together to discuss pressing issues. Ambassador Michael Froman emphasized the need for somebody who can listen to and bring the members together, since the organization is, at its core, a membership organization, and the institutional aspect has been suffering due to the lack of global consensus about trade policy. Therefore, Amb. Froman believes that diplomatic and political skills are more important during this time period than technical expertise, which is learnable. 

Wendy asked the panelists about which approach the new DG should take with regards to negotiations: go for the low hanging fruit items, i.e. smaller wins over the course of their leadership, or go for a “big win” negotiation right away. Amb. Schwab suggested the former, arguing that there probably will not be a large scale negotiation anytime soon. She believes that building momentum within the WTO through smaller victories, such as traction in the e-commerce talks, should be the focus of the new DG as a facilitator. Amb. Froman emphasized getting done what is doable before taking on more, such as an e-commerce agreement and the dispute settlement issues. However, he does not think the conversation about reforms should be put on the back burner, because while the members remain dissatisfied the institution will suffer. 

The conversation turned towards U.S.-China relations, and if the WTO can be updated to deal with disputes over industrial subsidies and state owned enterprises. Wendy asked if the solution should be bilateral agreements between individual parties, or rather a multilateral system of rules within the WTO. Amb. Hills brought up how it is a shame that we dropped out of the TPP, as it had a great handle on subsidies and SOEs. Amb. Froman discussed the complicated nature of these topics during the current pandemic, since many governments are using these tools to help their economies recover. He expressed his support for a plurilateral solution rather than individual agreements between different nations. 

The conversation wrapped up with discussions about rising tariffs, the USMCA agreement, and a Q&A session in which the panelists answered questions about the possibility of Congress pulling out of the WTO, among others.