WTO Future Grows Cloudier in a World Torn By Covid: Supply Lines

By Bryce Baschuk
(Bloomberg) —

On the grounds of the World Trade Organization’s headquarters in Geneva sits a traditional Chinese garden with a stone gate that bears the inscription: “A glimpse of hope in a time of despair.”
A gift from Beijing in less volatile times, it’s a fitting slogan at a moment when the WTO’s plan to hold a key international conference was roiled by the rapid outbreak of the latest coronavirus variant.
While it’s entirely possible that this week’s postponed meeting could have been a kumbaya moment for the global trading system, the truth is that some WTO members simply aren’t ready to make the sacrifices needed to ensure that multilateralism succeeds.

That’s because for some governments, it’s more advantageous to fight for domestic interests and oppose progress at the multilateral level rather than to concede to outcomes that may help the greater global good but require unpopular changes back home.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but over the past half decade America’s leadership void at the WTO has compounded this problem and in many ways made it worse.
But this is not necessarily a time for despair.

This year, the Biden administration offered its full-throated support for the WTO and offered a glimmer of hope that America may yet resume its role as a multilateral leader and coalition builder.
And there are still some wide-eyed optimists in the international community that believe there is scope for convergence and sensible solutions to the systemic problems facing international trade.
For those governments that want to lead on critical 21st-century trade issues like the pandemic, climate change and the digital economy, the postponement of the WTO’s ministerial conference provides a critical opportunity to think about moving in new ways.

If not all WTO members are ready to support a shift towards a more modern trajectory for the WTO, that’s their sovereign right. At the same time, there is nothing stopping like-minded nations from discussing ways to improve the global trading system.

Despite its flaws, the WTO remains a key forum for international cooperation and its rulebook is still aimed at binding nations together through mutual interest and economic integration. Even arch enemy Robert Lighthizer, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade representative, often said, “if we did not have the WTO, we would need to invent it.”

But instead of bustling with ministers from the WTO’s 164 members this week, the halls of the Centre William Rappard buildings in Geneva will with be filled with uncertainty, where the institution’s supporters cling to a fading hope that reinvention is still possible.

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