Alicia Nicholls

Reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO) remains a high priority on United States (US) President Donald Trump’s ‘America-First’ Trade Agenda. This was confirmed in the recently released 2020 Trade Policy Agenda and 2019 Annual Report of the President of the United States on the Trade Agreements Program by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).

Among the priorities listed for the President’s 2020 trade agenda is that the Administration “will push for a WTO that reflects current economic realities and strengthens free-market economies”. Readers would recall, for example, that last year the US stepped up its campaign advocating the introduction of criteria-based eligibility requirements, as opposed to the current and longstanding practice of self-selection as a developing country. In early February of this year, the US revised its list of developing and least-developed countries for purposes of US countervailing duties law.

In December last year, the WTO’s Appellate Body became defunct following some two years of US blocking of appointments and reappointments to the once seven-member body over allegations of judicial overreach by the WTO’s highest arbiter of trade disputes. Earlier this month, the USTR released a report reiterating some of its criticisms of the Appellate Body’s operation.

Consistent with the Administration’s stance, this present report has argued that “a number of features at the WTO reflect out-of-date assumptions and do not reflect current realities”.

So what are the US priorities for WTO reform this year? The report notes that in addition to addressing the Appellate Body, the US will seek a new fisheries agreement, a digital commerce agreement, enforcing notifications obligations, and seeking reform of “special and differential treatment” for “developing” countries. It will also advocate for “other changes at the WTO that will have the WTO working for its Members.”

The report further states that “the United States will also explore a broader reset at the WTO”. It notes, for example, that “the WTO currently locks-in outdated tariff determinations that no longer reflect deliberate policy choices and economic realities. ” As a result, it argues, “countries that have large economies that have developed significantly over the past two decades continue to maintain very high bound tariff rates, far in excess of the rates applied by the United States or to which the United States is bound”. It will also seek more plurilateral agreements.

Other trade policy priorities outlined in the 300-plus page document are: pursuing trade agreements that benefit all Americans and enforcing US trade agreements and trade laws vigorously.

Bearing in mind that this is a presidential election year in the US, it is likely the Trump Administration will use its ‘progress’ on WTO reform and other ‘wins’ like the recently updated NAFTA (renamed to the USMCA) and the Phase One trade deal with China as examples of a trade policy that puts Americans first in its bid to support the President’s re-election. This will definitely be a space to closely watch in coming months.

The full USTR report may be accessed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed herein are her personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may be affiliated from time to time.