WTO Members Kick the Can Down the Road, Again

WTO Members Kick the Can Down the Road, Again

REUTERS/Abdel Hadi Ramahi

The World Trade Organization's (WTO) thirteenth ministerial conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates failed to break the deadlock on old and new initiatives in areas such as agricultural trade, fisheries subsidies, and investment facilitation. Given rising great power tensions and growing protectionism, efforts led by coalitions of the willing could be the future of world trade.

Originally published at Council of Councils

April 1, 2024 11:28 am (EST)

REUTERS/Abdel Hadi Ramahi
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At the start of the ministerial conference, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called on members to pursue their interests through cooperation, stating that “leadership means you sometimes have to compromise on certain wants, so that others can secure their wants.” But after a week of meetings, her message was largely lost. WTO delegates emerged from their sleep-deprived haze with a handful of outcomes, but little to celebrate.

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The standout achievement is the accession of two new members, Comoros and Timor-Leste, proof that the WTO is still an attractive organization that delivers for its members, particularly developing countries. Members also agreed, in the eleventh hour, to continue the moratorium on e-commerce duties. Though this pushes the same standoff two years down the road, it avoids a much worse outcome that would have resulted from a failure to renew it. Dispute settlement also remains unresolved, but members agreed to keep talking. In addition, a handful of members agreed to reduce regulatory barriers to services trade. A welcome achievement, but one that faced strong objections that are still holding up aspects of its implementation.

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Several negotiations also went sideways. Agriculture remained intractable. Negotiations on new rules for digital trade are dead, with much credit due to the United States for injecting uncertainty into its long-held positions on that topic. Sadly, an attempt to expand disciplines to rein in harmful fisheries subsidies also fell apart, likely over developing countries’ demands for unreasonable flexibility and U.S. demands for language on forced labor. Finally, a deal among 125 members on investment facilitation was blocked by India and South Africa.

This is not to diminish the hard work behind the scenes, as delegates and WTO staff have put in tremendous hours to reach a meaningful outcome. However, international cooperation is not the guiding force of trade policy today. If the multilateral trading system is to survive, the zero-sum logic that some ministers brought to MC13 needs to be set aside in 2026.

Leading up to the meeting, the United States made the case for responsible consensus, arguing that for the WTO to evolve, members would need to adopt a more collaborative approach and shed their rigid adherence to past practices. However, responsible consensus also requires leadership, and this was sorely lacking at MC13. The WTO lives to survive another ministerial conference. More is needed to make the next one a success.

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This expert brief was originally published in a compilation assembled by CFR's Council of Councils.

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