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Postcard from a disintegration: Inside the WTO’s fraying seams

Published 31 January 2023

The election of President Biden heralded big changes in the United States’ relations with its partners. One area where little has changed however is trade. As the US increasingly subordinates trade policy to its strategic goals, the global multilateral trading system is losing leadership.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is what is known as a “member-driven” organization; to make things move in Geneva, you need the big players to take control. In the past, it has been the United States which drove the agenda, first in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and, since its founding in 1995, in the WTO. Nothing of consequence was achieved without US leadership. Today, this is no longer the case.

Gone are the bombastic rhetoric and pugilistic protectionist actions of the Trump era. But while the Biden administration puts more emphasis on alliances, its sneering indifference towards trade and in particular the WTO have left US trade partners unsure about Washington's strategic vision. Filling the void is China, who has been energetic across the board in its WTO activities and deftly elbowing rivals aside to secure a national as Deputy Director General.

Trace the disintegration of the WTO in this paper by Keith Rockwell, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and former Spokesman for the WTO.

© 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).

Keith M. Rockwell is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hinrich Foundation. Prior to his retirement in June 2022, Keith served as a Director at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and spokesperson for the organization for more than 25 years. He also is Global Fellow at the Wilson Center.

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