New WTO head’s first statements sail close to the wind

Okonjo-Iweala faces a crash course in WTO diplomacy, a car crash, or a third way. Which will it be?

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 18, 2021 | UPDATED MARCH 2, 2021

‘Someone has said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing you’ve done for years.” So remarked Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala shortly after she was accepted as the World Trade Organization’s next director-general on February 15, 2021.

She was speaking in an online press conference, outlining her view of where the WTO might be heading and how she might contribute.

Her first statements shed light on her intentions at the WTO and signal possible delicate times ahead. With some forthright suggestions on issues where members are divided, her approach has risks. (See also her acceptance statement in the WTO General Council.)

Continue reading “New WTO head’s first statements sail close to the wind”

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the new WTO chief, but let’s not get carried away

The director-general’s powers are limited, so don’t expect miracles. And don’t blame her if problems stay unresolved

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 15, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 18, 2021

Now that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been confirmed as the next director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) it’s tempting to see light at the end of the tunnel for the troubled negotiating forum and guardian of the resulting agreements.

First woman director-general. First African. Finally, someone at the helm after almost a year effectively without a leader. All those headlined proclamations are true. The excitement is justified, to some extent.

Continue reading “Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the new WTO chief, but let’s not get carried away”

Yes, the WTO needs fixing—but not the way this NY Times piece imagines

Farah Stockman’s ideas won’t work because they don’t ‘get’ the WTO

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED DECEMBER 27, 2020 | UPDATED DECEMBER 28, 2020

There’s a little anecdote on the World Trade Organization’s website, right at the start of “Understanding the WTO”. As the name suggests, “Understanding” is the principal explainer of how the WTO works. The anecdote goes:


Participants in a recent radio discussion on the WTO were full of ideas. The WTO should do this, the WTO should do that, they said.
     One of them finally interjected: “Wait a minute. The WTO is a table. People sit round the table and negotiate. What do you expect the table to do?”

If we keep that in mind as we read Farah Stockman’s New York Times opinion piece (“The W.T.O. Is Having a Midlife Crisis”, December 17, 2020), then it’s easier to see why so much of the piece is wrong.

Continue reading “Yes, the WTO needs fixing—but not the way this NY Times piece imagines”

Arbitration — the stop-gap when WTO appeals are unavailable

A group of WTO members have agreed on an alternative way to get a second legal opinion

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED AUGUST 4, 2020 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 13, 2020

On August 3, 2020, a group of 50 World Trade Organization members — 30% of the membership — announced that an alternative arrangement was up and running, as a means of getting round a blockage preventing formal appeals in WTO dispute settlement.

Developed gradually since early 2019, the system would retain countries’ ability to get a second opinion after a first-stage “panel” ruling, but unlike a formal appeal, the outcome would not be part of official WTO law.

Continue reading “Arbitration — the stop-gap when WTO appeals are unavailable”

Were Trump and Lighthizer right about WTO disputes?

The US’s claim that it is a victim in the WTO is based on a truly blinkered view. And that’s being generous

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 21, 2020 | UPDATED JANUARY 22, 2021

“We lose the lawsuits, almost all of the lawsuits in the WTO”. So said President Donald Trump in October 2017, just one of three huge untruths he uttered in barely 100 words.

Like the bad loser in the school playground, Trump might as well have wailed: “You’re all cheats!”

But the sentiment persists in US politics and was repeated on June 17, 2020 by Trump’s US Trade Representative, while more broadly an anti-WTO campaign mounts and US belligerence has thrown the WTO into crisis.

Continue reading “Were Trump and Lighthizer right about WTO disputes?”

Spot the difference: US tariffs on Scotch are not part of a tariff war

BBC Question Time was wrong about tariffs. It matters.

By Peter Ungphakorn
FROM UK TRADE FORUM, JANUARY 24, 2020 | UPDATED DECEMBER 9 2020

On January 23, 2020, Fiona Bruce, the host of Question Time on BBC TV, repeatedly and wrongly confused US tariffs on Scotch whisky with the US threat to raise tariffs on cars if Britain taxes digital technology companies.

The mistake matters because UK-US trade talks are likely to feature regularly over the coming months, not least on Question Time. Continue reading “Spot the difference: US tariffs on Scotch are not part of a tariff war”

The WTO is surprisingly busy — considering it’s supposed to be dead

The reports of the WTO’s death are greatly exaggerated

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JANUARY 17, 2020 | UPDATED JANUARY 17, 2020

As December approached last year, a steady stream of news reports and other articles warned of the impending death of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Deathday (December 10, 2019) came and went and still the WTO is alive and kicking.

If anyone needs proof, they could look at the schedule of meetings for the coming year. Continue reading “The WTO is surprisingly busy — considering it’s supposed to be dead”

How the WTO deals with problem trade measures—it’s not just dispute settlement

The Appellate Body is in a deep freeze, but those who think it will drag trade into the law of the jungle are in for a surprise

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED DECEMBER 11, 2019 | UPDATED JULY 14, 2021

A very short summary and graphic:
Dispute settlement is not essential (but it helps)

The public discussion of the Appellate Body crisis in the World Trade Organization (WTO) has revealed some fundamental misunderstandings about how governments’ actions on trade are handled in the organisation.

This is important. The WTO is now a quarter of a century old. Its real achievements are hardly noticed. They never hit the headlines.

Instead, the impression we get is that it’s all about the dispute settlement crisis (and previously the struggle to conclude negotiations).

The Appellate Body has been unable to function since December 11, 2019. This has crippled WTO dispute settlement, we’re told, ultimately jeopardising a trading system that’s supposed to be based on rules — rules that can no longer be “enforced” as a result of the crisis.

We’re going to be left with the law of the jungle instead of the rule of law. Just watch and wait. It could be the end of the WTO, we’re told.

We might have to wait an awfully long time, because keeping international trade within agreed rules relies on much more than dispute settlement. In fact a key purpose of the WTO is to keep formal disputes to a minimum, and it does a pretty good job at that.

Continue reading “How the WTO deals with problem trade measures—it’s not just dispute settlement”

A bit of bother down at the WTO court — Why? And is it a killer? Long read

WTO dispute settlement is in trouble, but it can struggle on at least for a while. So can the organisation’s other important functions

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED AUGUST 21, 2019 | UPDATED MARCH 24, 2021

This looks at the WTO Appellate Body crisis in some depth.
A simpler version is here
.
See also:
How the WTO deals with problem trade measures—it’s not just dispute settlement and The WTO is surprisingly busy — considering it’s supposed to be dead

A casual glance at the headlines might have misled us into thinking the World Trade Organization (WTO) would grind to a halt at the end 2019, that the blame lay entirely with US President Donald Trump, and that the WTO’s demise would bring anarchy to world trade.

Only the last of those three assertions is possibly correct; and only if the WTO really does die — which it certainly won’t, not in the near future.

This is an attempt at an explanation. It shows that even WTO dispute settlement could well survive, but in a less powerful form. Other important work in the WTO will continue, and therefore so will the WTO itself.

But be warned: simple explanations of complex issues cannot tell the whole story. And even this attempt is not that simple. Sorry.

Continue reading “A bit of bother down at the WTO court — Why? And is it a killer? Long read”

By Christmas 2019 the WTO was supposed to be dead — why wasn’t it? A short explanation

Reports of the WTO’s demise are premature. Yes, dispute settlement is in trouble, but even that can hobble on

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED AUGUST 21, 2019 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 13, 2021

This short explanation skims the surface of some pretty complicated issues. If you want more detail, with more links and references,
then try this longer version
.
See also:
How the WTO deals with problem trade measures—it’s not just dispute settlement and The WTO is surprisingly busy — considering it’s supposed to be dead

The doom-mongers had already written off the WTO. From December no new appeals in WTO disputes would be possible and the whole organisation would grind to a halt, they claimed. They were wrong.

The problem is with the appeals stage of WTO legal disputes. Some countries are finding ways to work around that. WTO disputes cannot be the same without a properly functioning Appellate Body, but they can continue even if the system is weaker.

As for the rest of the WTO’s work, it does not rely on dispute settlement. True, member countries participate in those functions more confidently if they know the disputes system is working well, but it will still take years before they lose confidence so badly that they give up on the WTO altogether.

Continue reading “By Christmas 2019 the WTO was supposed to be dead — why wasn’t it? A short explanation”