Reform of the WTO is the Wrong Agenda

Walden Bello | 07.01.2013

Food First Backgrounder, Summer 2000, Vol. 6, No. 3

In the wake of the collapse of the Seattle meetings, an opinion has emerged that reform of the World Trade Organization (W’l’O) is now the program that activist organizations, governments, and citizens must embrace. Cited by some as a positive sign is United States Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky’s comment, immediately after the collapse of the Seattle Ministerial, that “the WTO has outgrown the processes appropriate to an earlier time.” Also seen as an encouraging gesture was UK Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Stephen Byers’ statement to the Commonwealth Trade Ministers in New Delhi that the “WTO will not be able to continue in its present form. There has to be fundamental and radical change in order for it to meet the needs and aspirations of all 134 of its members.”

The founding of the WTO primarily served the interest of the United States.

In our view, these damage control statements provide little indication of the seriousness about reform of the two governments that were, pre-Seattle, the most stout defenders of the inequalities built into the structure, dynamics, and objectives of the WTO. It is unfortunate they are now being cited to convince developing countries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to take up an agenda of reform that could lead precisely to the strengthening of an organization that is fundamentally very flawed. What both North and South civil society should be doing instead at this point is radically cut down the power of the WTO and reduce it to simply another institution in a pluralistic world trading system with multiple systems of governance.

Is the WTO Necessary?

The founding of the WTO in 1995 was not in response to a collapse or crisis of world trade such as happened in the 1930s. World trade did not need the WTO to expand seventeen-fold between 1948 and 1997, from $124 billion to $10,772 billion. It was not necessary for global peace, since no world war or trade-related war had taken place during that period. The predecessor to the WTO, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), was functioning reasonably well as a framework for liberalizing world trade. Its dispute-settlement system was flexible, and with its recognition of the “special and differential status” of developing countries, it provided the space in a global economy for Third World countries to use trade policy for development and industrialization.