An unproductive Ministerial and US unilateralism leave the multilateral trading system facing an uncertain future
The world’s trade ministers failed to agree on anything meaningful at the 11th WTO Ministerial in December. Even a mundane declaration was beyond them. The reasons for this failure are the same factors that call into question the continuing effectiveness of the multilateral trading system centred on the WTO. We face a growing trend towards economic nationalism and unilateral actions that confront the founding principles of the WTO and its rules. The US announcement of increased tariffs on steel and aluminium is the most dangerous of these so far.
There are also some more positive signs. The Ministerial saw a number of plurilateral initiatives announced, for example on electronic commerce. These show that at least some governments are trying to push on with a forward-looking trade agenda. The signing of the CPTPP agreement is a major success for trade co-operation among governments in the Asia-Pacific region. And Singapore’s trade emphasis in its ASEAN chairmanship is encouraging.
However these developments are taking place around the WTO system, not within it. They could contribute eventually to a renewed multilateral impetus – or they could advance the hollowing-out of the system. The future of the keystone of the WTO, its dispute settlement system, is also uncertain. The blockage of appointments to the Appellate Body and the threatened expansion of the invocation of national security to justify trade restrictions are the biggest challenges it has faced since its establishment.
If the risk of a complete collapse of the WTO system can be discounted, the risk of its continuing slide into irrelevance cannot be. Multilateralism is clearly in retreat when it comes to trade negotiation. The question is whether the multilateral trade rules- a key part of the international architecture- will be allowed to go the same way.
About the Speaker:
Evan Rogerson retired from the WTO Secretariat at the end of March 2017, having held senior positions there for more than twenty years.
He joined the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1976 after graduating in history from Auckland University and initially worked in defence cooperation, then in economic relations. Secondment at the Treasury preceded postings in Brussels and London. His work in those postings focused on trade policy, particularly New Zealand’s relations with the EU and access to the European market.
After a period as External Relations Manager for the NZ Dairy Board in London, he joined the GATT Secretariat in 1986, working in the Agriculture Division on the Uruguay Round negotiations before moving to the Director-General’s Office in 1993. His role here ranged from speechwriting to policy advice.
As Director of the DG’s Office and Chief of Staff to WTO Director-General Renato Ruggiero from 1995 to 1999 he was closely involved with the WTO’s first Ministerial Conference in Singapore in 1996. Among many other roles during this time he acted as the WTO’s G-8 sherpa and co-ordinated the GATT/WTO’s 50th anniversary ministerial in 1998 which brought together world leaders including Presidents Clinton, Castro and Mandela. He worked closely with Director-General Mike Moore to prepare the launch of the new Round at Doha in 2001. From 2002 he headed the Council and TNC Division, servicing the WTO’s top committees and Ministerial Conferences. In 2012 he came back to the Agriculture and Commodities Division as Director. In this role he was also Secretary of the negotiating group on Agriculture. In 2015 he led the team that prepared the agreement to abolish agricultural export subsidies reached by Ministers at Nairobi that year.