Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?

The meaning of “success” is not the same for the Ministerial Conference’s organisers as it is for outsiders

Shot of WTO entrance with poster for 12th Ministerial Conference

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 9, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 12, 2022

How many times can a curtain go up and down? This is our second curtain-raiser for the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference, now rescheduled for June 12–15, 2022.

As we wrote when the meeting was postponed in late 2021, the WTO risks disappearing into a chasm of petty procedural wrangling over what to talk about, and how to move forward.

After delays in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, and more recently the threat to multilateralism posed by Russia, the fact of it happening at all will be taken as a success. But have WTO members been able to move closer to significant agreement on anything?

This time our curtain-raiser proposes some benchmarks for assessment. There’s even a scorecard at the end for anyone following along at home.

In the final General Council meeting before the Ministerial Conference on June 7, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and ambassadors chairing some of the committees, sounded upbeat. WTO spokesman Dan Pruzin said they were “cautiously optimistic”.

“Many gaps remain but we are making progress,” Okonjo-Iweala told members’ ambassadors. “The success of this whole endeavour is in our hands. Let us deliver. The people outside are waiting for us and, believe it or not, I really think we will do it.”

But the meaning of “success” is not the same for organisers of a big conference as it is for outsiders.

Many of those outside are waiting for WTO members to curb harmful fisheries subsidies in order to conserve fish stocks, cut farm support and other distortions in agricultural trade, ditch inward-looking policies that jeopardise everyone else’s food security, ensure vaccines, medicines and equipment are supplied where and when they are needed in a pandemic, and to start modernising trade rules so that they genuinely deal with sustainability and rapidly evolving digital trade.

The people outside are waiting for us and, believe it or not, I really think we will do it

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

But for the delegations and organisers, “success” can simply be an agreement to continue talking, to produce yet another set of work programmes, a continued “cacophony of cans being kicked down the road”, as actual decisions continue to be elusive.

The test of the Ministerial Conference will be whether the cacophony contains anything melodic at all — whether the cans get kicked down the road in a way that perpetuates the stalemate, or whether the agenda has been reframed and members’ approaches have been retuned in ways that allow future progress.

The end-of-May draft in agriculture is typical. Almost nothing was ever likely to be agreed at this conference. So the draft says: “We commit to continue our negotiations …”, “all Members will be expected to contribute to the outcomes of these negotiations according to the modalities to be agreed by Members”, and so on.

There is some attempt to narrow down the focus, but it’s still about more talking in a subject that broadly-speaking has been unresolved for almost a quarter of a century, with new deadlines and only one possible decision.

Which of the other issues will see real agreement is still unknown. Santiago Wills, the Colombian ambassador who chairs the fisheries subsidies talks suggested on June 7 that a deal is possible, but a lot still needed to be sorted out.

This is a topic where failure to reach agreement cannot be hidden behind a new work programme because the deadline in the Sustainable Development Goals has long passed.

With so much still to be settled, Pruzin told journalists to prepare for ministers to negotiate late into the night.

That was not the original intention — members had wanted to leave ministers with a handful of simple decisions. The prospects are now looking different even though delegations seem to be closer to some substantial decisions than they were before the conference was postponed in November.

With all of this in mind, our own view has not changed on one important point. The onus is still back home, not in Geneva.

Just getting ministers to Geneva might close some gaps in priorities, but anything that gives significant new direction to the WTO has to come from the members back in their capitals, not from the delegations in Geneva, and certainly not from the WTO Secretariat and its director-general.

That applies to the full range of important items on the WTO’s agenda. It even applies to the favourite buzzword, “WTO reform” — a catch-all term whose meaning depends on the beholder. Rescuing dispute settlement? Updating the rules so they move with the times? Improving the information members notify through the WTO so their actions are more transparent? Rethinking developing-country issues? Streamlining decision-making? Or all of the above?

The problem is that “reform” is treated as something that happens “over there” in Geneva, when what it really needs is for governments in capitals — particularly those of the major players — to reform their own thinking about the WTO, and to engage more with their delegations in Geneva as well as with each other.

(from left) WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Timur Suleimenov, a senior member of Kazakhstan’s presidential staff who will chair the conference; Didier Chambovey, Swiss ambassador and General Council chair, June 7, 2022
Heading for success? (From left) WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Timur Suleimenov, a senior member of Kazakhstan’s presidential staff who will chair the conference; Didier Chambovey, Swiss ambassador and General Council chair, June 7, 2022 | WTO
Not the usual Ministerial Conference?Back to top

By June 7, five days before the conference was due to start, how it would be organised was still unclear, according to Pruzin’s media briefing.

The original plan was for ministers to spend most time in “thematic” discussions. There would be sessions on food security, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic (covering both trade and intellectual property), agricultural reform, fisheries subsidies, WTO reform and perhaps some other subjects.

These would not be negotiating sessions, but an opportunity for ministers to share their perspectives and get to know each other’s, an approach used for the previous Ministerial Conferences in Geneva, in 2009 and 2011.

The ministers would meet in the evening to consider a handful of issues that their ambassadors were unable to settle. They would be offered simple binary choices, to accept or reject unresolved political points.

This would also avoid some ministers having to engage with Russia. Concern about the Ukraine-Russia war spilling over into walkouts and other disruptions is real. It is already rumoured to be affecting some of the documents that would be in the package of outcomes from the conference.

If the rumours are right, some documents that were ready to go in November 2021, have now had the names of sponsoring countries removed so that they do not appear alongside Russia. The texts would be demoted to summary statements from the talks’ coordinators.

According to the rumours, this would be the case for the talks on micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), and on trade and gender. (On June 10 and June 12, the MSME report and trade and gender statement were circulated and they were indeed issued by the coordinator(s).)

But at least one document has been circulated with a list of sponsors that includes Russia — for a work programme on electronic commerce.

Relocating the Ministerial Conference to the smaller premises of the WTO Secretariat has produced one benefit. The official plenary sessions have been stripped down. Instead of ministers speaking one after another, usually in an almost empty room, their official statements will be videoed in advance and available on the WTO website.

WTO building, lakeside
Benchmarks: coverage, results, progress | WTO
BenchmarksBack to top

What benchmarks should observers use to assess the meeting and whatever document is issued? Here are three suggestions:

1. Are the obvious issues on the agenda? For now, the answer seems to be a qualified “yes, but …”.

The list of topics covers pretty much everything. The problem is that the headings say little about the content.

Take “WTO reform”, the biggest heading with the weakest content. Members share little common ground on what needs reforming and no agreement on how — both for fixing the machine and the ability to add new issues to the rules.

Everyone agrees that it is important for the Appellate Body to be brought out of suspended animation, but there is no real dialogue on what needs to change, and at this stage no sense of direction on getting talks started.

Or transparency. This is one of the WTO’s central contributions to the trading system. It comes up in many substantive issues, like the response to the pandemic, food security and agriculture more broadly. But it is also an issue on its own with no sign of agreement.

Proposals on improving members’ notifications are likely to be deferred until after the conference while efforts to improve review in committees has stalled. Sadly, the debate has been more about whether the results would be too burdensome than about the benefits of transparency, and how they might realistically and fairly be achieved.

The qualification about the agenda (“yes, but…”) is because on many important new issues, members are divided on whether to discuss them in the WTO at all.

So regulations for services, environmental sustainability, fuel subsidies, digital trade and more, only involve part of the membership.

Work can proceed, but only among some countries, and procedural controversy constrains members’ ability to add new rules to the WTO’s multilateral agreements.

2. Do those issues produce results?

3. Did the members make sufficient progress on the most important issues? Did members indulge in tedious references to the abandoned Doha Round “mandates”, kicking cans down the road one more time, or did they frame a new agenda with a realistic chance of producing results in time for the next Ministerial Conference?

Those questions can only be answered in full after the conference, and the assessment will be mixed at best.

Some outcomes can be assessed immediately. The conference will either produce a new agreement on fisheries subsidies, or it won’t. Members will either find consensus on suspending some intellectual property rights for the COVID-19 pandemic, or not. A decision will be made to exempt the World Food Programme’s purchases from export restrictions, or it will be blocked.

In any case, we have low expectations. Why? The major players are not focusing attention on Geneva.

The EU can concentrate on “strategic autonomy”, now that the UK no longer provides a liberalizing impetus in Brussels — instead, pursuing trade deals with Indiana.

The US is not interested in anything to do with trade that might require Congressional approval.

China, worried about US attempts at encirclement, is more than usually risk averse as Xi Jinping seeks a third term this autumn.

Political leaders in India calculate that they gain more votes when they block the WTO than from bridge-building.

Man pointing figure accusingly
Whose fault? We should not blame “the WTO” if the conference is a bust | Gadi Goldstein, Unsplah
BlameBack to top

So, observers should be careful not to blame “the WTO” if the conference is a bust.

Given the present state of multilateralism, with the major players unwilling to engage in much coordinated action, a big WTO success would be a surprise.

Members are not even turning elsewhere to try to act together, to bridge the big divides and address global challenges. And smaller countries have nowhere else where they can influence global rules, or participate in monitoring the trade policies of their major partners.

There’s a reason why major governments attach low priority to the WTO.

Few WTO decisions have an immediate impact on the world, or on transaction flows. So if a government’s priority is dealing with short term disasters (war in Ukraine, the food crisis, the pandemic) none of the decisions proposed in Geneva is going to help. And yet they might cause immediate political problems at home by offending fishers or farmers or intellectual property rights holders.

If this Ministerial Conference underwhelms, it will be because of the members, and especially capitals. It won’t be because of obstructions in Geneva, or an institution in need of reform.

And yet, we are old enough to wonder whether the lack of formal linkages to other issues (whisper it: “single undertaking”), while not preventing informal vetoes, does make assembling a package-outcome more difficult. 

Photo of forms for recording marks, with pencils etc
Score your own assessment of the Ministerial Conference | Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu, Unsplash
How do you rate the WTO Ministerial ConferenceBack to top’s outcomes?

Update: our scores are here

 Agreement/ decision/ declaration/ chair’s statementAdvance on previous textsFrame a new agendaKick the can down the roadDeadlock
Agricultural subsidies and support     
Food security     
World Food Programme purchase exemption     
Fisheries subsidies     
E-commerce moratorium     
WTO reform
Agreement/ decision/ declaration/ chair’s statementAdvance on previous textsFrame a new agendaKick the can down the roadDeadlock
Dispute settlement     
Committee processes     
Pandemic response
Agreement/ decision/ declaration/ chair’s statementAdvance on previous textsFrame a new agendaKick the can down the roadDeadlock
Trade and health     
Intellectual property waiver     
Plurilaterals and joint-statement initiatives (only some members)
Agreement/ decision/ declaration/ chair’s statementAdvance on previous textsFrame a new agendaKick the can down the roadDeadlock
Investment facilitation     
Domestic regulation in servicesAgreement reached in 2021    
Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs)     
Trade and environ-
mental sus-
tainability structured discussions
Plastic pollution     
Fossil fuel subsidies     
Trade and gender     
Important topics not on the agenda:
members agreed to pass by with eyes averted
Agreement/ decision/ declaration/ chair’s statementAdvance on previous textsFrame a new agendaKick the can down the roadDeadlock
Subsidies, and counter-
vailing measures, anti-dumping
No progress in negotiations since 2011    
Non-agricultural market accessNo progress in negotiations since 2008    
Trade in servicesNo progress in negotiations since 2008    
mental goods and services

Robert Wolfe is Professor Emeritus of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. He has written extensively on WTO reform issues. Follow him on Twitter: @BobWolfeSPS.

June 10 and 12, 2022 — confirming that the MSME and trade and gender documents were issued by the coordinator(s) rather than by lists of participants.

Image credits:
Finger pointing | Gadi Goldstein, Unspalsh licence
Scorecard | Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu, Unspalsh licence
Other photos | WTO


Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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