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Issue #591

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2014 Media Kit

WTO World Trade Report examines six decades of multilateralism in trade

By: | at 07:00 PM | International Trade  

On January 1, 2008, the multilateral trading system celebrated its 60th anniversary. This year’s World Trade Report celebrates this landmark anniversary with an in-depth look at the GATT and its successor the WTO.

‘The global trading system has been a source of prosperity, stability and predictability for six decades. It has underpinned an unprecedented period of economic growth and has provided an environment in which many countries have been able to raise development levels and reduce poverty,’ said Director-General Pascal Lamy. ‘But the GATT and the WTO have not done all they could, particularly for developing countries. ‘In the coming months we have the chance to deliver more for our member governments and the citizens they represent. By striking an ambitious and development-oriented agreement in the Doha round we can greatly strengthen a system which has done much to make the world a better place.’

The report looks at the circumstances in which the GATT was born and goes on to explain why governments believe it is in their interests to cooperate on trade matters. This is followed by a discussion of how the GATT/WTO as an institution can foster greater international cooperation. Finally, the Report reviews what the multilateral trading system has achieved in six decades and what remains to be done.

The authors describe how the first half of the twentieth century does not stand as a monument to international cooperation. The inter-war years were marked by far-reaching government failure, limited international cooperation, and economic hardship in many countries. Trade policy was erratic, punctuated by bouts of protectionism, discrimination and policy tension. It was against this backdrop that the architects of the post-war system of economic cooperation set about designing arrangements that would guarantee greater stability and predictability.

The report makes clear the multilateral trading system is confronted by considerable challenges, both short-term and longer-term. An immediate task is to find closure to the current negotiations in a manner that will offer real benefits to all parties and prepare the WTO to play its rightful role in international trade governance. As the balance of economic power and the focus of international interests shift, the Report’s authors ask whether governments see viable alternatives to the inclusiveness implicit in today’s multilateral trading system. The future of the WTO depends entirely on how far governments value such an institution.

In looking at why governments choose to cooperate, the Report includes perspectives by economists, political economists, international relations theorists and lawyers. The array of different and sometimes complementary explanations for cooperation provided by this literature is rich. Economists, for example, emphasize the additional economic gains that flow from reciprocal trade liberalization. Political economists think about how electoral politics can help to shape decisions about cooperation and how international commitments can influence the relative strength of competing interests within the domestic economy. International relations theorists seek to explain cooperation in terms of managing power relationships, distributional conflict and shared ideas and beliefs. Legal theorists emphasize the role of ‘constitutions’ such as international trade agreements in defending public interests and constraining government action. The discussion of this literature makes clear that the motivations for cooperating in trade matters are diverse and far from fully understood.

Among the contributions an institution like the WTO offers are to reduce uncertainty, facilitate negotiations, disseminate information, reduce transactions costs in various ways, help to settle disputes, administer agreements, monitor policies and act as an agent for surveillance. The WTO’s record in these domains is discussed in the Report.

The report points out that world trade has grown twenty-seven fold in volume terms since 1950, three times faster than wo