Fixing the World Trade Organization

Editorial of the “World”. There are birthdays that no one wants to celebrate. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) on December 11, 2001 was a major event, which profoundly upset the balance of the world economy. However, twenty years later, neither Beijing nor the Western countries are rushing to celebrate a multilateralism which suffers from numerous dysfunctions. After the euphoria of the beginnings, which dramatically boosted international trade, the time has come for mistrust, withdrawal into oneself, reciprocal accusations of disloyalty and the instrumentalisation of trade for geopolitical purposes.

The state of play is alarming. While litigation is increasing, customs and normative barriers are rising up everywhere. The last agreement signed within the framework of the WTO now dates back more than eight years. The undermining work undertaken by former United States President Donald Trump has produced its effects. The dispute settlement body is still paralyzed due to the unwillingness of the United States to ensure the continuity of its functioning.

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Hopes of seeing his successor, Joe Biden, put multilateralism back at the center of the agenda were quickly dashed. In a context of exacerbated struggle for technological leadership between the United States and China, the negotiation of common rules for better trade has become secondary. For its part, Beijing clings unduly to its status as a developing country to preserve its advantages, while the country is now the second largest economy in the world.

The organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference, initially scheduled for November 30 to December 3, was to be a new start. Alas, the new wave of Covid-19 postponed the debate indefinitely.

A new governance

However, a review of the WTO is essential. Obtaining a consensus among the 164 member states has become almost impossible. Faced with this observation, countries are tempted to sign bilateral agreements that are necessarily limited in scope. It is urgent to reflect on a new governance and a reform of the way the organization operates.

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The first point concerns the real power of a general direction which has only the name. The real bosses of the WTO are the member states. Without a strengthening of the authority of the governing bodies to obtain compromises and define priorities, the organization is doomed to remain an unmanageable Tower of Babel.

In terms of operation, we must return to more modesty, moving from multilateralism to plurilateralism. Reaching agreements with a few dozen countries is easier than at 164. Even less ambitious, the method would have the merit of triggering momentum. Better that a few progress, rather than condemn everyone to paralysis.

The WTO must also evolve on the subjects it takes up. Customs barriers have long remained the main obstacle to international trade. But, today, the stakes are increasingly focused on the digitization of the economy and the ecological transition. Establishing common rules in these areas becomes imperative. Despite its imperfections, the WTO has the merit of existing. Its planned obsolescence would inevitably result in the return of the law of the strongest when the inequalities between the South and the North start to widen again. Fixing it is an emergency.

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