Javier D. Spencer, Guest Contributor
The 1995 organization has done considerably well to date as an arbiter of international trade. The organization was created as a response to the economic situation in the 1930’s that resulted in global tensions. Its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), was ostensibly limited in scope and so, the consensual demand was for an inclusive and comprehensive institution to govern and promote international trade.
Achieving inclusive and comprehensive trade was daunting; nevertheless, the organization has attained the aforementioned buzzwords and continues along this trajectory. For instance, the WTO started with only 123 signatories under the Marrakesh Agreement in 1994 and today has over 160 members, with pending ascensions. Additionally, it is remarkable to note that the WTO agreements are comprehensive. They cover trade in goods, services, agriculture, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, intellectual property, rules of origin, subsidies, dispute settlement, and many more.
The WTO rests on its founding principles of non-discrimination, reciprocity, transparency, safety values, and binding and enforceable commitments such as the tariffs commitments in order to liberalize and promulgate free trade as a global public good. With these at its core, it is fair to say that the organization has lived up to its core function and objective.
Having regard to the organization’s core functions and objectives, governing global trade is no easy feat, especially taking into consideration competing political and economic interests among WTO member . The organization is a rules-based organization and these rules are agreed upon by consensus of member states. In this regard, the organization’s Dispute Settlement system remains a feather in the cap and its prized arm. The Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) has provided stability to the global economy by ensuring that agreed rules are enforced. Since its existence, the DSB has successfully deliberated on many cases that have maintained the integrity of the WTO rules.
Despite its successes, the future of the WTO remains vulnerable. At present, it is on the receiving end of dire threats from one of its founding members – the United States (US). Interestingly, the US led the global effort to establish the machinery to manage global trade. However, the present President of the United States (POTUS) lashes the organization as the worse deal for the US. POTUS’ actions to date are alarming – from delaying the appointment of members to the WTO Appellate body to dusting off Section 301 of the Trade Act to a brewing trade war with China and other countries to the burial of the NAFTA to public statements of leaving the WTO and much more. We should be worried about the future of the WTO.
The WTO is lauded by many countries as a fair and just organization that seeks to level the playing field and as much as possible promulgate all-inclusivity. However, not all world leaders share these sentiments. One example is the President of the United States, Donald Trump. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States and has been in office since January 2017. He triumphed over his opponent with his patented and infamous campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again”, a slogan that is purported to usher in better economic times for the United States of America. It was envisioned to focus on military operations and to focus on implementing mechanisms to fillip the job market and ailing industries in the US. The implication of this, of course, is that Trump’s actions would focus on US’ external trade policy. However, at what cost is Trump willing to “Make America Great Again?” Does he mean to make America great again by ruffling the feathers of a peaceful, collaborative, rules-based multilateral trading system?
It is without a doubt that Trump has very little faith in multilateral organizations. To date, the POTUS has adopted many controversial positions in global affairs, with harsh jabs towards the WTO. He has aired that the WTO does not serve the interest of the US and as such, the organization is biased and unfair to the country. He has further iterated that the WTO and the EU are collaborating against the US and as a result, transactions by these organizations are very ‘bad’ for the United States. These sentiments all lead to a threat to withdraw the US from the organization – much like the US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights body. The threats and dire warning aimed at the multilateral organization from the POTUS show isolationism, protectionism, nationalism, and I even dare say reverse globalization.
The stance on global trade, in particular, and actions that are taken show that POTUS’ external trade policy remains a mystery. One thing is for certain, he strives to deliver on his campaign promise of remedying the trade [im] balances that the US has with other countries, in an effort to “Make America Great Again”. The achievement of this infamous slogan has led to a trade war with China, sanctions against Turkey, a failed trilateral negotiation of NAFTA and other trade turbulences – with surely more to follow.
In early July, in a claim to fix the unfairness in trade, the US imposed 25% tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods. This then extended to steel and aluminium imports from Canada and the European Union. (The move to extend the imposed tariffs to the other countries could be looked at from the lens of ensuring that Chinese firms do not engage in deflective trade strategies by establishing firms in these territories and export under the guise of these territories.) As the US imposed these tariffs on Chinese goods, China returned the favour by imposing tariffs on US goods and as such, a tit-for-tat trade war ensued. For Trump, he deemed that the imposition of tariffs was necessary and served as “national security” interest of the United States. This exemption clause is enshrined in the 1994 GATT Article XXI of the WTO agreement and is certainly one loophole of which the POTUS will take full advantage.
The example of the US-China brewing trade war definitely puts the global rules-based system in peril. It brings into question the authority or jurisdiction of the WTO to advise the US of the legitimacy of “essential” or national security claims. However, on the other hand, supporting Trump will legitimize a major loophole in the global trade rules. At this crossroads, the WTO faces an uphill battle with a world leader’s determination to dismantle decades of the global trade order.
The POTUS’ actions to weaken the organization goes beyond Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, which was the US domestic legislation used to spur the trade war. In fact, there is a draft a bill that the POTUS has advanced that would have dire consequences for the WTO and the global trading system. The Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act (FART Act) is de facto a mechanism for the POTUS to completely disregard the WTO rules. In other words, the Act confers rights on the POTUS to adjust tariffs rates with countries outside of the WTO jurisdiction, without much red tape and authorization of Congress.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
With all that is happening now in the global trade environment, the brewing question is what would happen if the WTO were dismantled by the US. As a global hegemon, the US’ exit of the WTO will certainly cause a domino effect. Other countries will follow and move to impose tariffs to their absolute advantage – making the rules-based organization and its decades of work useless.
POTUS certainly has no faith in the multilateral trading system and is reshaping the US’ external trade policy by striving for bilateral trade agreements with countries. There is nothing inherently wrong with negotiating bilateral agreements with third-party states. In fact, there are provisions made within the WTO rules-based system that enables countries to create regional trade agreements. However, it would seem that POTUS’ aim is to completely ignore the rules and create his own rules. Rules that would only advance the economic interest of the US, which may not maintain the integrity and ethos of free and fair global trade. This form of trade policy is one where we will see that the US will use economic pressure to its whims and fancy.
Many cases have proved the WTO’s worth in regulating global trade so that there is an equal opportunity available to all member states. Developing countries and countries of the Global South should make it a priority to save the WTO. In particular, the Caribbean Small Vulnerable Economies (SVEs) should focus on the future of the WTO against the backdrop of POTUS’ withdrawal threat. The US remains the Caribbean’s largest trading partner for both imports and exports. So, what would a US withdrawal mean for these Member States? An appropriate question considering US-Antigua Gambling Case. Antigua is yet to be compensated and the possibility of the US complying with the WTO’s ruling is unpromising. With the US’ pronounced economic influence on the region, its withdrawal would further subject the Caribbean SVE’s to the US “beggar-thy-neighbour” trade policy.
It would be unfortunate for all if the actions of one President collapse a just and fair trading system.
Javier Spencer, B.Sc., M.Sc., is an International Business & Trade Professional with a B.Sc. in International Business and a M.Sc. in International Trade Policy. His professional interests include Regional Integration, International Business, Global Diplomacy and International Trade & Development. He may be contacted at javier.spencer at gmail.com.