Think Tank (4/2020)
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WTO: Between COVID, Reform Debate and a New Leadership
14 Aug 2020

On 14 August 2020, the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, RSIS, hosted Dr Olaf Wientzek, Geneva Office Director for Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, for a seminar on the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) current state of play. Apart from sluggish multilateral negotiating and rule-making, the past few years has seen an uptick in economic nationalism and protectionism, along with greater politicisation and deadlock of WTO processes. Reform is of the essence, a task made difficult by diverging interests among major powers and the broader membership.

COVID-19 has only added to the stress: 2020’s Ministerial Conference — a key platform for ministers to push forward trade agendas — has been postponed. The sudden resignation of Director-General Roberto Azevedo has also left a leadership void, which will be hard to fill considering the geopolitical tensions colouring the appointment of his successor.

Dr Wientzek added, however, that there are silver linings. Countries are defending, and continue to attempt reforming, the WTO and multilateral trade. The WTO remains a significant platform for countries to push trade initiatives, such as keeping supply chains open during the pandemic, and continues to monitor protectionism in line with the rules-based order. Several countries are also trialling reform measures vis-à-vis an interim appeal arrangement rather than devolving into might-makes-right adjudication, or simply replicating the existing dispute settlement mechanism that is heavily contested.

However, much work can be done going forward. Countries should continue to defend multilateralism by playing constructive roles in the ongoing WTO Joint Initiatives, such as on e-commerce, and sending good representatives to the WTO. He then noted the importance of choosing the right candidate for Director-General — who must be both a reformist and an excellent diplomat — but also the re-establishment of trust between WTO members if contentious issues such as state subsidies and development statuses, which have led to deadlock, are to be resolved. Ultimately, an excellent Director-General can only do so much if WTO members refuse to cooperate.

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