This chapter analyzes prominent treaty regimes governing international trade. We begin with the bilateral treaty regime that arose in the nineteenth century. We explain how this regime’s distinctive features are best explained by our theory of international law and how its failures influenced the design of the great twentieth-century multilateral treaty regime, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade/World Trade Organization. GATT/WTO poses a challenge to our account of international law, for, according to conventional wisdom, it provides the basis for multilateral trade cooperation. As we shall see, however, the elements of GATT/WTO that have flourished generally solve coordination problems, not multilateral prisoner’s dilemmas. The international trade rules that were designed to solve multilateral prisoner’s dilemmas have failed. GATT/WTO might be best described as an effort to use bilateral means to solve a multilateral problem; its limitations can be traced to this mismatch between means and ends.
International trade has always been an important element of states’ foreign policy. Before analyzing modern international trade law, we provide a little historical background, because one cannot understand the modern system without understanding how states would act in the absence of this international legal regime. Such a hypothetical trade regime would not necessarily be one of maximal trade barriers and economic autarky.