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Talking Trade blog

Multilateral trade at a crossroads: 20 years of the WTO

Published 28 October 2015

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is gearing up for a major ministerial meeting to take place in Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of this year.  The meeting will coincide with the 20th anniversary of the WTO. 

This ought to have been the occasion for a happy party and celebration.  It is not.  Officials are struggling to deliver even the tiniest package of positive outcomes and concrete results. 

This is a depressing outcome for an institution starting its third decade.  It matters too, particularly for the smallest, poorest and most vulnerable economies. 

Normally, for a ministerial meeting just six weeks away, members would have already agreed on the basic texts of the final declaration.  All outcomes would be mostly lined up and ready to go.  After all, the WTO is a bit like an ocean liner.  It takes time and considerable effort to get more than 160 member countries to agree on declarations and outcomes, even if the greatest will in the world exists to get these things done.

Unfortunately, political will is in terribly short supply in Geneva, as shown by the meager harvest of possible outcomes for Nairobi:

1.  Negotiations on the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) are at a complete standstill.  These global trade talks, launched in 2001, are supposed to address (at least) agricultural and services trade and help modernize the rulebook for the WTO. 

No one can say so publically, but these talks are dead.  The various partial “deals” that were on the table in the past are simply not going to be the basis for future negotiations.  Key players have moved on and will not accept a return to the past in 2016 and beyond.  Since the WTO is a consensus-based institution, the unwillingness of many to engage in an old agenda or use old frameworks for addressing issues effectively means the DDA is finished.

Where the institution goes from here is a good question.  Unfortunately, discussion of future pathways cannot begin in earnest until the existing approaches are firmly put to the side.  The topics may remain, but the mechanisms for achieving outcomes will have to change.

2.  With the main product stuck, officials are scrambling to cobble together anything positive.  Still on the table as a possible deliverable for Nairobi: a commitment to rule out export subsidies (or, put more crudely, to do anything related to agriculture).  The basic issue with reducing subsidies explicitly for the purpose of export is that almost no country provides such subsidies any longer.  It could be worthwhile to discuss export rules and restrictions, but an export subsidies commitment is going to have minimal implications for the global trade system.

3.  Promises on transparency.  There are lots of things that might usefully be done to increase transparency at the WTO, including full implementation of previous pledges to immediately provide information on new bilateral and regional trade agreements (FTAs).  However, whatever happens on transparency in areas like antidumping actions or fish subsidies or FTA notification requires willingness by members to actually be transparent and timely.  So far, the track record of members to abide by WTO transparency rules is not good—no matter what may happen in Nairobi.

4.  Measures to help Least Developed Countries (LDC)s.  Even here, members continue to disagree on what sort of promises might be usefully made to improve the prospects for LDC members in the WTO.  For example, negotiations on a services waiver have been difficult.  Granting duty-free, quota-free access remains controversial. A new dispute has erupted over extending a waiver on pharmaceutical patents for public health in LDC countries.

5.  In the absence of DDA progress, some WTO members would like to announce progress on other issues.  First up, the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA).  This agreement was signed with great fanfare at the last ministerial meeting in Bali in December 2013.  Unfortunately, movement towards implementation has been extremely slow. 

The 52nd country (Pakistan) stepped forward with its implementation commitments on October 27.  This sounds impressive, but do recall that the number is skewed upwards by 28 members of the EU who all accepted at once.  Two-thirds of total WTO members must agree to participate before the deal can start moving.  Getting substantial new members to sign on will be challenging with the limited time remaining before Nairobi.  Two years have already passed.

6.  Members want to announce movement on the Information Technology Agreement II (ITA2).  This is a plurilateral (meaning not all WTO members are involved in the negotiations) agreement designed to extend an existing plurilateral commitment on tariff-free coverage for technology goods.  While members did agree on a list of 201 products for inclusion on the list, they remain quite divided on the timing of tariff reductions.  Hence, the deal is really only partially finished.

7.  The Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) has also received some positive coverage by the WTO.  This is another plurilateral agreement designed to make it easier for countries to trade in environmentally-friendly goods by lowering tariffs on specified products like wind turbines. 

Looking at the progress of these negotiations closely, however, not much of note can likely be announced at Nairobi.  Of the 665 products on the provisional list at the beginning of this month, member states disagreed about the placement of nearly 200, or almost 1/3, of the total number of items under consideration.   

8.  Another important plurilateral negotiation, Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), is also not yet ready for unveiling in Kenya.  Negotiations are progressing, but too slowly to achieve results in a few weeks.

Even changes to the Secretariat that might be helpful in updating the institution are proving problematic.  For example, while the dispute settlement system is often described as the “crown jewel” of the WTO system, growing backlogs are tarnishing the crown.  Discussions of how to alleviate a staff shortage and adjust the system have been mostly languishing since 2013.

My own modest proposal to revamp the WTO’s website and extend outreach to new stakeholders with a better use of social media outlets was coolly received at a meeting in Singapore last week of Asian trade officials and Secretariat staff.  Such changes, it was suggested, could require buy-in from members and may also prove impossible given resource constraints. 

I would argue that an institution that cannot fix its own outdated website without encountering pushback and internal disagreement is not well-positioned to handle many of the toughest trade issues as it heads into a third decade of existence.

***Just in—Indonesia’s President Jokowi apparently told President Obama that Indonesia “will join” the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The New York Times did not provide a timeline for this “eventual” commitment.  Bets anyone?

© The Hinrich Foundation. See our website Terms and conditions for our copyright and reprint policy. All statements of fact and the views, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s).

Dr. Elms is Head of Trade Policy at the Hinrich Foundation in Singapore. Prior to joining the Foundation, she was the Executive Director and Founder of the Asian Trade Centre (ATC). She was also President of the Asia Business Trade Association (ABTA) and the Board Director of the Asian Trade Centre Foundation (ATCF).

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