On Monday, WTO officials will gather in Buenos Aires for their 11th ministerial conference. There is very little hope that any of the deals on the agenda will be reached, as both the WTO’s negotiations and its dispute settlement system have long been paralyzed by political bickering and a deep-seated inefficiency in the organization itself. Anxious WTO ministers (such as the EU’s trade commissioner) are now grasping at straws and blaming Trump and his lack of support for the WTO’s troubles.
Yet twenty-two years after its creation, the organization has almost nothing to show for it as far as trade liberalization is concerned. Juggling 164 member countries, each with its own protectionist agenda, was never likely to bring about ‘more open trade’, ‘more competitive markets’, or ‘market stability and predictability’. Especially not after trade rules, services, intellectual property, and environmental protection were brought to the negotiations table alongside tariffs and non-tariff barriers. Countries started by holding agreements hostage to their demands, continued with disregarding agreements completely, and now end on quibbling over the language used in joint statements.
An easy, albeit crude, depiction of WTO’s failure can be seen in the figure below, where the world tariffs effectively applied (which include unilateral liberalization and preferential trade agreements) have been consistently lower than those achieved via multilateral negotiations (most favored nation) in the first twelve years after WTO’s creation – when it was allegedly most successful.
This post was published at Ludwig von Mises Institute on Dec 9, 2017.