Think Tank (5/2023)
Roundtable discussion on “The Future of Multilateralism”
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The Future of Multilateralism
31 Aug 2023

RSIS, together with the Hinrich Foundation, hosted a roundtable discussion on “The Future of Multilateralism”. It featured Mr Keith M. Rockwell, Senior Research Fellow at the Hinrich Foundation and former World Trade Organization (WTO) Director and Chief Spokesman. The discussion, held on 31 August, was chaired by Dr Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit, Senior Fellow and Head of the Centre for Multilateralism Studies.

In his opening remarks, Mr Rockwell provided a comprehensive overview of the evolution of economic multilateralism, particularly within the WTO, since its inaugural Ministerial Conference held in Singapore in 1996. He emphasised how the organisation was able to weather through global crises, from the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the Ukraine War, and the COVID-19 pandemic. He closed by analysing the protectionist turn among bigger economies, such as the United States, and the effect it has had on negotiations during more recent Ministerial Conferences. Mr Rockwell observed that the slow pace of dispute resolution between WTO member countries as well as a perceived deadlock in recent ministerial negotiations have frustrated both policymakers and the general public. Nonetheless, Mr Rockwell said that advances in WTO Joint Initiatives in areas such as E-commerce and Investment Facilitation for Development should be a cause for optimism.

After concluding his remarks, Mr Rockwell engaged in a lively discussion with the attendees during a Q&A session. Attendees’ questions generally revolved around the future relevance of the WTO in economic multilateralism, given recent trends in the intensifying US-China great power competition, protectionist foreign economic policies, and so-called “plurilateralism”, where smaller groups of states dissatisfied with the deadlock in recent negotiations band together to settle issues on their own. Mr Rockwell was also asked about the potential negative implications that the impending expansion of the BRICS group might have on the WTO. The roundtable concluded with Mr Rockwell arguing that while the challenges facing the WTO appear immense, the organisation will continue to play a major role in setting international trade policy.

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