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The WTO’s Fast Track to Irrelevance
World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters on November 27, 2021 in Geneva ahead of next week's WTO ministerial conference. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters on November 27, 2021 in Geneva. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

The WTO’s Fast Track to Irrelevance

Thomas J. Duesterberg

The Omicron scare provided a face-saving way to cancel the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization, scheduled to open Nov. 30 in Geneva. The session was headed for minimal results, joining this year’s Group of 20 summit and the Glasgow Conference on climate change in failing to achieve their goals. The WTO’s inefficiency, China’s growing influence, and the lack of economic-policy consensus within and among national democracies are the principal causes of its endemic gridlock. The WTO’s weakness exemplifies in many ways the end of the post-World War II liberal international order.

The liberal trade order that took shape after the war had three primary missions: help revitalize the moribund economies of Europe and prevent the advance of the Soviet communist economic model; build an international system to prevent authoritarian revival in Germany, Japan and elsewhere; and reduce North-South tension by helping raise living standards in the developing world. With strong U.S. support, in many cases to its own economic disadvantage, the system succeeded in the first two goals.

But over the past decade or more, the WTO system has lost its leadership role in expanding a liberal, rules-based global order. This is partly because of institutional sclerosis and poor adaptation to the economic and global landscape. The WTO doesn’t effectively cover such challenges as industrial and agricultural subsidies, forced technology transfer, and rules for newer digital and services economies, including data privacy, cross-border data flows and internet commerce.

Instead of addressing these gaps, European and American political leaders have tried to burden the WTO with new missions such as climate change, human rights and labor standards. These efforts often divide economic constituencies within democracies and further widen the North-South gaps. Negotiations over rules for commercial fisheries, a seemingly simple matter, began more than 15 years ago, and the issue still isn’t resolved.

Read the full article in The Wall Street Journal

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