Role of the WTO in Furthering U.S. Trade Policy Objectives

Article excerpt

Alan Wolff's paper(1) presents a thoughtful examination of the question of whether the World Trade Organization furthers the trade policy objectives of the United States. Wolff's paper is certainly timely and important. In the aftermath of the Seattle Ministerial and with the upcoming vote in Congress on our participation in the WTO, the impact of that organization oil our trade policy objectives is the focus of a great deal of attention in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

The impact of the WTO on our trade policy objectives may not, however, be the most important question currently facing decision-makers. These individuals also struggle with whether the United States' continued participation furthers our policy objectives generally, and not just our trade policy objectives. After all, many of the fiercest critics of the WTO will readily concede that the institution has been very effective in opening markets, creating a rules-based trading system, and facilitating trade. These critics, however, will argue that our trade objectives conflict with and should be balanced against other important objectives, such as raising environmental and labor standards, protecting our sovereignty, and furthering our national security and foreign policy interests. The ability of policy makers to resolve this perceived conflict will be instrumental to determining whether and on what terms we remain in the WTO.

That said, I agree with Wolff's conclusion that the WTO does further U.S. trade policy objectives. Although the WTO as an institution could be strengthened in a number of ways, it is clear that the WTO has served U.S. trade policy objectives quite well.

This Article will focus on one of the issues raised by Wolff: whether the WTO has had an adverse impact on U. S. trade policy by inhibiting our use of unilateral measures. This is an important issue because of concern that the United States has been weakened in its ability to open foreign markets. This concern is particularly acute in the wake of certain recent dispute settlement cases that have highlighted that certain trade distorting practices are beyond the reach of the WTO.

Bear in mind that our WTO commitments do not, strictly speaking, alter our ability to act unilaterally. These commitments may, however, have lessened the will of member countries to take trade actions not specifically authorized through the WTO process. If this is true, then it is important to assess the impact of this dynamic on our trade policy objectives.(2) This issue often arises in the context of a specific trade conflict, where the United States has been unable to convince a trading partner to eliminate a particular barrier to trade. These situations often lead to a great deal of frustration regarding our perceived lack of leverage in trade disputes. While this frustration is often justified, it should be put in a broader context.

First, and perhaps most importantly, even if the WTO does inhibit unilateral action, the net result of having the WTO is still a more open world market than would otherwise exist. …