Reworking the WTO

By Barfield, Clade | Harvard International Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Reworking the WTO


Barfield, Clade, Harvard International Review


Robert Keohane's essay, "Abuse of Power: Assessing Accountability in World Politics" (Summer, 2005), is temperate, yet thought-provoking, particularly with regards to his comments on the World Trade Organization (WTO). Keohane separates the issues relating to "internal accountability" from those of "external accountability." For most analytic purposes, this is a sensible distinction, but I would argue that when assessing the history of the WTO there are direct links and that problems of external accountability often are complicated by problems stemming from a lack of internal accountability.

Keohane acknowledges this connection in part when he quotes political scientist David Held as pointing out that the "external accountability problem may be even greater as a result of democracy: 'arrogance has been reinforced by the claim of the political elites to derive their support from that most virtuous of source of power--the demos.'" (Readers, however, should note Held's invidious turn of phrase that gives a pejorative construct to the demos as "that most virtuous source of power" exploited by "political elites." A more benign interpretation would key upon the legitimacy emanating from a strongly functioning demos.)

In earlier research, Keohane (writing with Harvard Professor Joseph Nye) has described the early history of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and WTO as a "club system," staffed and run by a small group of trade bureaucrats in each country. The system worked well for over three decades after the creation of the GATT in 1945--primarily because trade negotiations overwhelmingly consisted of external tariff deliberations that interested only a relatively small group of commercial exporters and importers. Beginning with the Tokyo Round, but emerging with full impact in the Uruguay Round, trade negotiations extended to issues far beyond national borders and deep into hitherto domestic policy and politics--health and safety issues, national regulatory systems for financial services, telecommunications, aviation, intellectual property, as well as agricultural and other subsidies. This broadening and deepening of GATT/WTO substantive authority brought many other interest groups into the process and challenged the ability of trade bureaucracies to manage the trade negotiating and ratification system. …

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