Academic journal article Global Governance

Potential Future Functions of the World Trade Organization

Academic journal article Global Governance

Potential Future Functions of the World Trade Organization

Article excerpt

In thinking about the World Trade Organization's role in the future governance of the global trade system, there are at least six issues worthy of consideration:

1. Agenda formation in the WTO.

2. Relationships with other international organizations.

3. The relationship between the trade liberalization and rule-making functions of the WTO.

4. A "missing middle" in the functions of the WTO?

5. Systemic threats to the system (regionalism).

6. Variable geometry and possibilities for critical mass approaches to WTO obligations.

At first blush, these issues may appear to be discrete, yet they are interrelated. Part of what determines the functions of the WTO is obviously the reach of its mandate in terms of policy area coverage. That, in turn, will influence relationships with other intergovernmental agencies for international cooperation. Both agenda formation and the nature of interagency relationships are relevant to the balance of emphasis in the WTO between liberalization, rule making and nonlitigious deliberation (the missing middle). The notion that the explosion of regionalism poses a systemic threat to the multilateral trading system is core to a consideration of the future functions of the WTO, particularly in relation to the balance between liberalization and rule making. Finally, the status of the consensus rule in the WTO will influence processes and outcomes in relation both to agenda formation and the balance of emphasis in defining the WTO's priorities and core functions. (1)

Agenda Formation

This issue can be seen as a question about the boundaries of the WTO. We do not have a theory or a conceptual framework that would permit us to determine ex ante whether a particular issue or subject area should be negotiated in the WTO. Perhaps it would be useful to try (as some authors have) to define such a framework. In the meantime, it may help to think about why governments might seek to expand the WTO agenda. Here are some possible reasons:

* To protect acquis--the accumulated rules and law of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the WTO. What we are thinking about here is essentially the elaboration of existing provisions. (2) Two things about these types of negotiations are noteworthy. First, we have no way of determining which existing provisions in GATT or the WTO should be elaborated. Second, when such elaboration or clarification of existing provisions occurs, this may also entail an extension of provisions, thus introducing new disciplines. So in practice, the desire to protect acquis may also involve an extended trade agenda, blurring the distinction between this and negotiations that would change the conditions of competition, as discussed below.

* To change the conditions of competition. This is about introducing new areas of regulation where a primary, but not necessarily exclusive, concern is with gaining a competitive advantage. This could account, for example, for the desire to introduce rules on government procurement. A problem here, of course, is that other motivations may be adduced in arguing for the inclusion of a new issue. Those wishing to bring labor rights into the WTO are likely, for example, to argue in terms of social values rather than economic advantage. This example sounds a cautionary note on the utility of a taxonomy that relies on the attribution of motive.

* To enhance efficiency. The easiest example here is of international disciplines relating to environmental protection in order to manage spillovers, but there are doubtless others, including prisoners' dilemma situations. Aspects of regulatory harmonization through international agreement can also be presented in efficiency terms. Any situation where international cooperation is key to reducing trade costs or transactions costs would fit under this rubric.

* To find trade-offs through a broader agenda. …

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