Remember the World Trade Organization?
Then the WTO postponed the meeting indefinitely
The culprit, of course, is the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has become the motive behind a fresh round of global lockdowns and travel restrictions. In Geneva, which was supposed to host the world’s top trade diplomats for the WTO, thousands of people are now in quarantine.
This postponement may be understandable, but it’s also troubling.
This is in fact the second time the WTO has had to postpone the event. It was originally planned for Kazakhstan, in June 2020, back when it seemed like the pandemic was cancelling everything.
The WTO’s ministerial conference—its “topmost decision-making body”—takes place at least once every two years. It offers an opportunity for countries to think of creative ways to improve the flow of goods and services across borders, for the benefit of producers and consumers alike.
Globally, farmers have a significant stake in these efforts. Here in the United States, we export about one-third of our grains. And we’re hardly alone: Around the world, farmers depend on buyers in other countries.
Consumers may be the biggest beneficiaries, as international trade keeps food available and affordable. Wheat from Canada allows Italians to make pasta, avocados from Mexico let Japanese enjoy guacamole, and blueberries from Peru nourish people in Ohio.
Since 1950, the volume of global trade has boomed, growing by a factor of 40. It has continued to expand at a fast pace since 1995, the year of the WTO’s founding. The WTO doesn’t deserve all of the credit for this trade-growth accomplishment, which has spread prosperity and improved food security all over the planet, but it has certainly played a key part in this worldwide success story.
I’ve always regarded the WTO as an idealistic group, ever since I attended its early meetings in the 1990s. I was concerned that it lacked the tools to enforce its trade pacts.
I was also concerned that granting membership to China in 2001 would be a mistake: Although I believe we have to be able to conduct honest, rules-based business with China, the continued uncertainty as that country moves further away from a path of market-based economic reform to one with an increased state role, makes that almost impossible.
Even so, I have continued to support the WTO’s program. Its overarching mission as a rules-based global trade organization is urgently important.
Today, however, free trade confronts a crisis of legitimacy, as Walter Russell Mead recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal: “Trade liberalization, next to American military power the single most important force binding the nations of the world into a liberal order, is facing its most significant challenge since the Great Depression.”
It has failed to prevent China’s persistent rule breaking. Moreover, it has done little to halt a surge of protectionism, whose latest example is President Biden’s decision last month to double the tariffs on lumber from Canada.
Around the world, more and more politicians seem focused on increasing the barriers and challenges to effective trade between nations rather than ensuring it flourishes.
The WTO’s governance structure, which requires cooperation from 164 member countries, also has clearly become a hindrance. It’s hard enough for these nations to unanimously agree to the trading rules by which we’re all supposed to abide, and even more complicated and unlikely if they can’t even meet face to face.
With no future date set for this important WTO Ministerial Conference, the will and engagement needed to make the important decisions the trading world needs from this governing body are in jeopardy.
I don’t have a solution to this problem—except to say that just about everywhere, from the halls of power in global capitals to the diners where farmers meet over coffee, we need more people to speak up for free trade.
And maybe even take an occasional risk on its behalf.