In 2015, when the WTO turned 20, there was still a sense that this was an organization that was central to the ways in which we managed economic globalization. Since then, of course, the wheels have practically come off, and there’s a sense [of] a real crisis of credibility in the WTO and about its role going forward.
First the GATT and then the WTO have overseen a period of tremendous expansion and growth, and have then practically watched from the sidelines as larger trends — such as digital technologies, such as climate change — have taken over and have created an angst about globalization that has come in full force through the tendencies for populism since 2015.
So, what happens if the WTO cannot modernize? Here I am, in an empty office building, in an empty office in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and what do we see around us? We see that countries have been increasing protection around trade in medicine and medical devices. There’s no certainty on when a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, how quickly it will get out, under what intellectual property rules, and there’s no sense that the WTO might be central or a go-to organization to deal with this crisis. That, in fact, is exactly the dilemma that we face.
We need central, strong organizations to manage globalization. Regional trade agreements can fill in some of the gaps in global trade governance, but we need something that manages the trade and trade-related aspects of globalization that maintains trade as one of the drivers of peace and security and stability and prosperity, and we need a discussion around how we go about organizing this.
It is in this context that CIGI commissioned a number of essays — 18, in fact — on modernizing the World Trade Organization. These essays touch on many of the issues critical to the future of the body, including dispute resolution, the environment, inclusion, digital technologies, negotiation strategies and much more. We hope that by bringing these experts and views to the table we create a discussion around the future of this organization — and if not the organization, a discussion around how we wish to manage global trade going forward.