The recent ministerial meeting, held in Geneva in December, demonstrated that while the Doha Round may be dead, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is resilient but changed as an organization. In fact, the meeting surprised many hardened observers by producing some tangible deliverables — four new accessions and a major new deal on government procurement — as well as a number of ministerial decisions. Do these results suggest that WTO members really do care about the WTO and that the mood has changed within the organization? Or was this simply a carefully orchestrated opera directed by a masterful director, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy, to ensure that this meeting would not result in failure, like so many past WTO meetings?

After all, this was the first ministerial meeting to eschew multilateral negotiations — the Doha Round was not on the table; instead, this meeting was devoted to discussions about the role of development and the future of the multilateral trading system. The precisely drafted consensus document, “Elements for Political Guidance,” prepared in advance by ambassadors in Geneva, reveals an overwhelming preoccupation with development as a “core element of the WTO’s work.” It is this mission that underscores most of the ministerial decisions taken at this meeting, which provide preferential treatment to less-developed countries. This statement, however, if widely accepted by the WTO membership, is a major change from the WTO’s main mission, which, in the past, has focused primarily on trade liberalization.

With respect to the future of the multilateral trading system, it is clear that the WTO will not continue to play the central role it has played in previous trade negotiations. The United States, the European Union and others, including Canada, have, for all intents and purposes, abandoned the WTO as the primary focus of their trade negotiation initiatives. Instead, the priority in developed-country capitals is on negotiation of preferential “new generation” economic and trade agreements with other major partners, as well as plurilateral negotiations, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They, pragmatically, view the WTO as a place to achieve what they can with whom they can — witness the Agreement on Government Procurement (a plurilateral agreement involving the European Union, the United States, Canada and a handful of other partners). But, increasingly, the major developed countries feel hamstrung by the very principles they insisted upon in the Uruguay Round, which have now become the mantras of the developing countries — the single undertaking and the consensus principle. The very success of the Uruguay Round in making the WTO more universal, with fuller participation of developing countries, has made the WTO less viable as a forum for negotiating further trade liberalization.

There appears to be a more realistic understanding, after over 10 years of failing to negotiate all issues within the context of a multilateral round, that it might be better to separate the subjects out and try to negotiate some of them on a case-by-case basis. One example is dispute settlement — ministers specifically agreed to conclude the Dispute Settlement Understanding Review negotiations on a separate track from the Doha Round. This takes dispute settlement, a systemic issue, out of the single undertaking in the Doha Round, and provides a precedent for proceeding separately on services or other issues. It also shows a new willingness by members to negotiate outside of the confines of omnibus rounds in the future.

There were some surprises, such as the conclusion of the Agreement on Government Procurement, which had been under negotiation for over 10 years and was concluded in the last minutes of the meeting. This agreement, involving 15 parties (42 if the EU members are counted as separate countries) is an improvement of the Uruguay Round agreement, worth over US$100 billion, and includes more government agencies, services and build-operate-transfer arrangements than the previous agreement. China, although not yet a party, has been seriously negotiating for access to this agreement. A major outstanding issue for China is whether to open up procurement contracts for its state-owned enterprises.

The successful negotiation of this plurilateral agreement highlights another mantra in the WTO: whether negotiations should always be approved by all members on the basis of consensus, rather than allowing “variable geometry” or plurilateral agreements in the system with approval of less than the full membership of the WTO. The developing countries are particularly committed to retaining the single undertaking and consensus principles, whereas the major developed countries tend to favour a more pragmatic approach, including variable geometry if consensus is not possible. It is this inability to bring new agreements into the WTO that has driven those countries in favour of greater liberalization to negotiate “new generation” trade and economic agreements outside the WTO.

Heralded as a success, but in reality a major challenge for the system, is the accession of Russia to the WTO after 18 years of protracted negotiations. The negotiations with Russia were lengthy, and often difficult, with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin at times taking opposite positions on whether or not Russia wanted to be a member. In the end, Russia agreed to a protocol with obligations and commitments more extensive than those accepted by China 11 years ago. It will be interesting to see how quickly Russia moves to implement the massive commitments and obligations it has taken on, and whether other WTO members, such as the European Union and the United States, allow it a honeymoon period before bringing dispute settlement cases (as they did with China) or whether the gloves will be off from the beginning.

The ministerial meeting has provided interesting insights into the WTO as an organization. From a governance perspective, the WTO is clearly a different organization today than it was in its first decade. There is currently a deep divide between developing and developed countries with respect to its mission, governance structures and future direction. The overwhelming majority of members are developing countries for whom development is a core element; the developed countries see trade liberalization as the primary objective and will pursue it in preferential trade agreements when progress is not attainable in the multilateral system. Many members remain wedded to concepts of the single undertaking and consensus decision making for reasons of representativeness and transparency.

In order to move ahead, however, and conclude new agreements in the WTO, some form of variable geometry will likely have to be accepted in future. By delinking the dispute settlement negotiations from the Doha Round and concluding the government procurement agreement, members have already demonstrated a willingness to be pragmatic in order to achieve results, rather than dogmatic in insisting upon certain principles. While there appears to be a renewed sense of optimism among members of the WTO, it is clear that the scope of what is achievable is limited, and broad multilateral trade negotiations will remain very difficult for the foreseeable future.

From a governance perspective, the WTO is clearly a different organization today than it was in its first decade.
  • Debra Steger is professor emerita at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law and a senior fellow at CIGI and the C. D. Howe Institute. She was the first director of the Appellate Body Secretariat of the World Trade Organization.