The WTO is clearly in crisis. All its three core functions — negotiation, transparency and dispute settlement — face an unprecedented set of problems. And it’s fashionable to lay the blame for all this at the feet of the Trump administration, but many of the WTO’s problems predate Trump’s arrival on the scene.
Some attempts at reform are underway, but these are piecemeal efforts and they would, at best, paper over the cracks. I argue that a more ambitious and holistic “grand bargain” may be necessary. I suggest three steps.
First, we need to negotiate a new deal that accommodates and encourages social welfare mechanisms within countries. This doesn’t mean that the WTO should intervene within domestic economies of states. But one can conceive of a reformed WTO that encourages member states to pay greater attention to the distributive consequences of trade within their societies.
Second, we need to build a convincing narrative in favour of trade multilateralism. The ones that seem to be winning favour with people are more along the lines of “America first.” The pro-multilateral trade narratives have been much more technocratic, and for those of us who believe in the value of the WTO, we just have to build a sustainable narrative that can convince real people.
And, finally, we need a tighter set of rules that limits the weaponization of interdependence. If the WTO is to function meaningfully, it does need to develop a tighter set of rules on issues like subsidies, state-owned enterprises, data protection and so forth.
Unless we pay attention to all these three things, even the most well-meant attempts to reform the World Trade Organization are unlikely to be sustainable.