1. What happened to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which, founded with great enthusiasm and great expectations in the 1990s, has twenty-five years later an undefined role in world trade? ? How did you go from great optimism to widespread disbelief in the global multilateral system, which is now deeply affected by the trade dispute between the United States and China and the impact of the pandemic? covid-19? Due to these tensions, on May 14, 2020, the organization’s director general, Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo, announced his resignation on August 31, ending his term a year earlier. When the WTO was created, which entered into force in 1995, it was hoped that it could successfully implement a full round of trade negotiations in an increasingly globalized world. It was also expected to far outperform in this task the results of the Uruguay Round (1986-1994), the last of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT 1947). In reality, this never happened.
2. In part, the problem is as old as the WTO itself. The task of the organization has never been made easier by the multiple and contradictory expectations that have been created around it. On the one hand, we expected greater liberalization of international trade, understood in a (very) broad sense. In other words, global trade agreements would cover not only industrial products but most agricultural products, services, audiovisual products and other marketable products, including so-called non-tariff barriers and regulatory differences. On the other hand, the expectation was almost the opposite, based on a logic of broadening the negotiating program, but to reflect social, environmental and development concerns. It was therefore foreseen that an ambitious negotiating agenda would be adopted, not to expand public sector trade agreements, but to include issues such as workers ‘and consumers’ rights, the impact of trade on the environment and Development. These multiple demands and expectations, largely contradictory, did not facilitate the task of negotiation. On the contrary, they probably contributed to the failure of the WTO as we will see below.
3. The Doha Round was the first round of global trade negotiations within the organization. It began at the end of 2001, in the capital of Qatar, in a context of international politico-military tensions caused by the terrorist attacks of September 11 in the United States. But the Doha Development Agenda was too ambitious. The negotiations aimed to cover multiple areas of international trade in thematic issues as diverse as agriculture, services, trade facilitation, standards, environment, geographical indications and intellectual property, among others. Thus, trade would be a factor of development (an interesting topic for the least developed countries) and the rules of the international trading system would be revised in order to eliminate, as much as possible, non-tariff barriers (a topic of interest to the more developed countries). ). Trade-related environmental issues entered the negotiating agenda with great media coverage. As for services, trade in agricultural products and issues related to the protection of intellectual property, they reappeared in the negotiations. However, this complete set of thematic files, in addition to its technical complexity, now has, due to the very nature of the subjects dealt with, an inescapable political dimension.
4. When more than 150 States participated in the negotiations – there are currently 164 WTO members – world representation was acquired, but the relative homogeneity of GATT was lost. At the WTO, which tends to be a global organization, its members have very different profiles, interests, degrees of participation in international trade and levels of development. In part, because of this enormous heterogeneity, in successive business meetings, from Doha (Qatar) to Nairobi (Kenya), via Cancún (Mexico) or Hong Kong (China), the result was almost always the same. : postponements, suspensions and failures in obtaining exceptional results. Importantly, skepticism about the benefits of globalization has grown and taken root in the parts of the world that have motivated it the most: the United States and the European Union. Originally, this was where the greatest support came from for the last round of GATT negotiations – the aforementioned Uruguay Round – and for the creation of the WTO itself. But in the current global context, growing pressures have emerged to adopt trade policy measures that can be characterized as protectionist and an expression of economic nationalism.
5. One of the most important institutional innovations of the WTO was the creation of a dispute settlement body, filling an important gap in the previous GATT system. However, this dispute settlement system was also at the center of the political tensions that are now projected at the WTO. There is a declining number of members to settle international trade disputes, due to the US boycott of appointing new members upon expiration of current terms. Since the end of 2019, there has been only one active member whose term ends on November 30, 2020. Many Americans believe that WTO arbitration is biased and unfair, too often rendering decisions unfavorable to the country, but a calm analysis of the results of arbitration decisions in these disputes does not support this conviction. In any case, a respondent country now has at its disposal a simple strategy to block unfavorable decisions: it presents an appeal in order to put the case in a legal impasse, removing the possibility for the WTO to authorize a tariff retaliation. .
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6. More than ten years ago, Zaki Laïdi, in How trade became geopolitical, noted that trade issues were no longer considered purely technical and aroused only the interest of experts. Instead, “they have become highly political, not only because trade issues have changed, but also because the geopolitical context in which trade takes place has changed.” He added that this transformation kept them from being subjected to “pure market demands” and that trade negotiations “will always be difficult and unpopular for one important reason: the benefits of trade are rarely immediate and visible, while the costs are visceral and instantly felt. “. This politicization of trade negotiations has not abated over the past decade, but has undergone a major transformation. There has been a shift from a challenge to globalization, launched mainly by social and political left movements – and centered on the problems, injustices and inequalities in the least developed countries – to another challenge now launched by social and political movements, in particular on the right – and with concern the deterioration of the living and employment conditions of the middle / lower middle classes in the countries of the North, that is to say in the developed countries.
7. The WTO passed the first wave of anti-globalization movements reasonably unscathed in the 1990s, but this second wave increasingly cripples it. If trade was already getting too political, the trend is even more pronounced today. The Doha Round was abandoned with no prospect of another full multilateral and global negotiation. On the contrary, bilateralism and protectionism gain the upper hand. The trade dispute resolution system is currently blocked. There are signs that the growing rivalry between the two largest state trading powers (the United States and China) will continue to have a negative impact on the WTO, as the case of the United Nations Body shows. dispute settlement, the paralysis of which has a greater cause in this rivalry. . On top of that, there is the extraordinary impact on the global economy and trade from the covid-19 pandemic. It is not difficult to predict that the WTO will face difficult times, especially if the trends of de-globalization intensify in the world to come.