Do the difficulties in reaching an agreement in the Doha round signal the need for institutional reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO)? Members face great difficulty in undertaking needed renovations and new agreements through negotiations, even as the organization goes about its daily work as usual. This paper is structured by two hypotheses: that the way in which interests are aggregated changes outcomes; and that deliberation aids learning, which changes outcomes. The paper shows that WTO decision-making principles, dominated by the Single Undertaking and consensus , are essential given the nature of the membership and the political saliency of the issues, which has implications both for what is discussed (the agenda) and how (process). New rules apply to all, which means that voice for all members matters. While exit is difficult, any member can deny consensus, in principle if not in practice, which creates more roles for small groups and coalitions, and a common need for transparency. The paper concludes that procedural improvements by themselves will not solve intractable policy disagreements, but the lessons now being learned in the Doha Round on how to manage traditional negotiations involving many more members within a changing global power structure might pay off in a subsequent round. Nevertheless the engagement of thousands of officials in the WTO process continues to shape collective management of the global trading system, even when revisions to the treaty prove elusive.

  • Robert Wolfe is Professor in the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario where he is director of the Master of Public Administration teaching program.