Difficulties in the UN climate talks in recent years have prompted calls for shifting negotiations to a smaller and more nimble group. The argument for doing this (and I’ve made it myself) often turns to an analogy with the GATT. That foundational trade agreement, people point out, didn’t start with every country on earth. Instead it began with a small group, figured out how to make that relatively tractable arrangement work, and then built on success. Climate negotiators should do the same.
But a new book on institutional change in international commerce suggests important limits to that analogy. The book – Institutional Change and Global Commerce – doesn’t actually say anything about climate change. It does, however, grapple with a very relevant question: when do states stick with the institutions they have, despite their limitations, and when do they create new ones?
In working through that question they spend a lot of time look at the creating of the GATT following World War II. The authors’ emphasize that novelty (along with its cousin uncertainty) is the enemy of international cooperation: states are much better at cooperation when they’re using a familiar set of tools. Yet the book points out that the GATT wasn’t as novel as most observers (particularly not close ones) assume. The roughly one hundred bilateral agreements that comprised the GATT were “similar in form to the reciprocal trade agreements that had helped restore free trade in the later 1930s”. The elements of the GATT, the authors argue, “were relatively well understood – a comfortable choice”. They drive this point home: “The GATT sought to recover known gains that had existed under previous trade arrangements but had been disrupted since the interwar period”. This wasn’t a jump into uncharted waters – it was, notwithstanding some important innovations, a return to something known.
One can’t say the same thing about a big new climate agreement – or at least not about one that works. (A repeat of the Kyoto Protocol would be familiar but not particularly functional.) This suggests that it should be no surprise that major states have shown little if any appetite for trying something radically different in international climate diplomacy, whether that’s done with two hundred countries or with ten. It also suggests that no one should be holding their breath for a major change. But it also points in a constructive direction. Starting with smaller institutional innovations – building, perhaps, on bilateral agreements, climate deals with lower stakes (such as one focused on short-lived forcers) and on modes of cooperation featured in existing multilateral environmental and economic arrangements (one place where parts of the GATT analogy, particularly as David Victor has fleshed it out, can be useful) – might be a better way to get to the sort of big international agreements that might ultimately be needed.