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In order to monitor and sustain the complete set of Uruguay Round agreements, the member countries established a new body called the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO is a relatively small organization based in Geneva, Switzerland. It has a director-general, currently Pascal Lamy (as of January 2010), and a small staff of economists, lawyers, and others. The goal of the WTO is the same goal as its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT): namely, to promote trade liberalization and thereby to foster growth and economic development.
Sometimes the WTO is described as an international organization governing international trade. However, this description can be misleading. The WTO does not make trade rules. The only makers of rules are national governments. In this sense, then, the WTO does not govern anybody. A better way to think of the WTO is as a club of member nations. The club’s purpose is to monitor each member country’s trade policies with respect to the trade agreements that were made in the Uruguay Round. The WTO agreements include thousands of promises for every country, all intending to reduce barriers to trade relative to what the barriers were before the Uruguay Round. The WTO does not represent free trade. At best, the agreements can be described as freer trade.
Besides monitoring each member country’s trade policies, which the WTO fulfills by conducting periodic trade policy reviews of the member countries, the WTO club was also created to deal with disputes. This is surely the most important “power” of the WTO.
Disputes are handled by the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB). The DSB works like a committee that meets regularly to discuss any issues countries may have with respect to each other’s trade policies. The DSB is comprised of one representative from each member country. When they meet, countries have the right to object to the trade policies of another country. However, they cannot object to anything or everything; instead, a country can only object to an unfulfilled promise with respect to one or more of the WTO agreements.
When the Uruguay Round was finalized, each member country went back to its own legislature and changed its trade policies and rules to conform to its new commitments. Sometimes inadvertently and sometimes purposely, some countries do not implement their commitments fully. Or sometimes a country believes that it has fulfilled its commitment, but its trading partner believes otherwise. Or new legislation may violate one of the country’s previous commitments. In these cases, a member country (the complainant) is allowed to register a dispute with the DSB against another member country (the defendant). Resolution of a dispute follows these steps:
Resolution. If the appellate board concurs with a panel decision that a defendant country has violated some of its WTO agreement commitments, there are two paths to resolution:
Since the WTO began in 1995 there have been over four hundred disputes brought to the DSB. A complete listing can be found at the WTO Web site here (http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dispu_e/dispu_status_e.htm). A large number countries have been complainants and defendants although the two countries most often on one side or the other are the United States and the EU. Some of the most well-known disputes have involved bananas, steel, hormone-treated beef, and commercial aircraft. Lesser-known cases have involved narrow product groups such as Circular Welded Carbon Quality Line Pipe, Canned Tuna with Soybean Oil, Combed Cotton Yarn, and Retreaded Tires.
Many cases have been raised once, sent to consultations, and then never raised again. In some cases, consultations are sufficient to settle the dispute. Many other cases proceed to panel formation, appeals, and resolution. In many cases, defendants lose and eventually change their laws to comply with the WTO decision. In other cases, defendants lose and because of their refusal to comply, or their procrastination in complying, complainants suspend concessions. In a few cases, countries have refused to comply and faced no consequences. Occasionally, a defendant wins its case against a complainant.
Overall, the WTO dispute process has worked reasonably well. The cases brought, because they are often targeted to narrow industries, do not affect a huge amount of international trade. Nonetheless the existence of a forum in which to register disputes and a mechanism for resolving them (one that includes some penalties for violations) has had a notable effect of reducing the risk of international trade.
Traders know better what to expect from their trading partners because their partners have committed themselves to particular trade policies and to a resolution mechanism in the event of noncompliance. In a sense, then, it is true that the WTO agreements restrict the freedom of a country to set whatever trade policy it deems appropriate for the moment. That loss of sovereignty, though, is designed to prevent countries from choosing more destructive protectionist policies—policies that are very seductive to voters, especially in an economic crisis. If successful, the WTO could prevent a reoccurrence of Smoot-Hawley and its aftermath both now and in the future.
Jeopardy Questions. As in the popular television game show, you are given an answer to a question and you must respond with the question. For example, if the answer is “a tax on imports,” then the correct question is “What is a tariff?”