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The World Trade Organization and the Future of Multilateralism

Listed author(s):
  • Richard Baldwin

When the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was signed by 23 nations in 1947, the goal was to establish a rules-based world trading system and to facilitate mutually advantageous trade liberalization. As the GATT evolved over time and morphed into the World Trade Organization in 1993, both goals have largely been achieved. The WTO presides over a rule-based trading system based on norms that are almost universally accepted and respected by its 163 members. Tariffs today are below 5 percent on most trade, and zero for a very large share of imports. Despite its manifest success, the WTO is widely regarded as suffering from a deep malaise. The main reason is that the latest WTO negotiation, the Doha Round, has staggered between failures, flops, and false dawns since it was launched in 2001. But the Doha logjam has not inhibited tariff liberalization far from it. During the last 15 years, most WTO members have massively lowered barriers to trade, investment, and services bilaterally, regionally, and unilaterally—indeed, everywhere except through the WTO. For today's offshoring-linked international commerce, the trade rules that matter are less about tariffs and more about protection of investments and intellectual property, along with legal and regulatory steps to assure that the two-way flows of goods, services, investment, and people will not be impeded. It's possible to imagine a hypothetical WTO that would incorporate these rules. But the most likely outcome for the future governance of international trade is a two-pillar structure in which the WTO continues to govern with its 1994-era rules while the new rules for international production networks are set by a decentralized process of sometimes overlapping and inconsistent mega-regional agreements.

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Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Volume (Year): 30 (2016)
Issue (Month): 1 (Winter)
Pages: 95-116

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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:30:y:2016:i:1:p:95-116
Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.30.1.95
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References listed on IDEAS
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  1. Antoni Estevadeordal & Caroline Freund & Emanuel Ornelas, 2008. "Does Regionalism Affect Trade Liberalization Toward Nonmembers?," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 123(4), pages 1531-1575.
  2. Kyle Bagwell & Robert W. Staiger, 2004. "The Economics of the World Trading System," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262524341, December.
  3. Grossman, Gene M & Helpman, Elhanan, 1995. "Trade Wars and Trade Talks," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 103(4), pages 675-708, August.
  4. Zissimos, Ben, 2007. "The GATT and gradualism," Journal of International Economics, Elsevier, vol. 71(2), pages 410-433, April.
  5. Wilfred J. Ethier, 1998. "Regionalism in a Multilateral World," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 106(6), pages 1214-1245, December.
  6. Markus Lampe, 2011. "Explaining nineteenth‐century bilateralism: economic and political determinants of the Cobden–Chevalier network," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 64(2), pages 644-668, 05.
  7. Richard Baldwin, 2011. "Trade And Industrialisation After Globalisation's 2nd Unbundling: How Building And Joining A Supply Chain Are Different And Why It Matters," NBER Working Papers 17716, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Baldwin, Robert E., 2009. "Trade negotiations within the GATT/WTO framework: A survey of successes and failures," Journal of Policy Modeling, Elsevier, vol. 31(4), pages 515-525, July.
  9. Putnam, Robert D., 1988. "Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games," International Organization, Cambridge University Press, vol. 42(03), pages 427-460, June.
  10. Michael A. Clemens & Jeffrey G. Williamson, 2004. "Why did the Tariff--Growth Correlation Change after 1950?," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 9(1), pages 5-46, 03.
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