Dhaka, Bangladesh
Is this the last chance to save the WTO?

Off the track

Is this the last chance to save the WTO?

The global trade order is under unprecedented strain. Its flaws have been evident for some time — the inability to conclude the Doha Round, launched in 2001, is the most obvious failure — but its inability to keep pace with changing business conditions is the real danger to its survival. The battleground for this struggle is the World Trade Organization, which has been unable to promote free and open trade in which all competitors are treated fairly. While the WTO is one piece of a larger system, it plays a critical role: It resolves disputes and arbitrates conflicts. If the WTO is not “fixed,” the consequences will extend well beyond its offices in Geneva. Three problems bedevil the world’s economy. The first is the structural imbalances that mark global trade. The United States runs persistent deficits, a function of the size and maturity of its economy. Yet while that is consistent with economic logic, the outcome is politically unsustainable. That leads to the second problem: U.S. unilateralism to remedy those imbalances. Believing that the perennial U.S. trade deficit reflects unfair trade practices, President Donald Trump has imposed tariffs on an array of goods to force trading partners to get them to reform their trade policies and practices. Almost every trading partner has denounced the U.S. actions and most (but not all) have retaliated with tariffs of their own. Trump has responded with threats of further escalation. There is a third problem, however: Chinese policies that have helped domestic companies at the expense of foreign competitors. Most notably, there are complaints that Beijing has forced foreign companies to hand over intellectual property as a condition of doing business in China. Trump has made that claim the cornerstone of his trade policy toward China, and European businesses concur: In a recent survey by the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, 20 percent of companies said that they felt compelled to hand over technology in exchange for market access. The WTO is supposed to address such issues and, by doing so, vent pressure for unilateral action (and sanction countries that are prepared to do so). Unfortunately, the organization has failed to do its part and there is a mounting fear that Washington would ignore any WTO sanctions imposed upon it, compounding the institution’s failures and potentially fatally undermine it.

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