WTO Ministerial Conferences are held every two years. They aren’t really strategy retreats, like the management team off-sites that companies hold, but maybe they should be.
It would be a costly error to take the WTO for granted. It is one of the indispensable international institutions that underwrite the functioning of the world economy. Yet, the institution and its rules need to keep pace with the evolution of world trade. Without change, the WTO is at risk of not remaining fully relevant.
In 1944, the global economy was in shambles. Forty-four nations gathered in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to discuss how to rebuild an economy devastated by protracted depression and two World Wars. From these discussions emerged a 1947 agreement on a lasting framework for post-war commercial relations whereby trade barriers were contained and then gradually reduced over time.
As a new resident in Geneva, I consulted with a number of WTO Ambassadors to the WTO as well as senior members of the secretariat. Several members offered a bottom line value to the WTO: the WTO system is providing essential stability without which business would have far less certainty. Without the WTO system in place, economic activity — both cross border and domestic – would be sharply reduced. Anyone who cares about either the level of economic activity for a country or for a company should pause and consider that truth.
We often talk about “trade wars,” but in the era of a rules-based trading system the phrase typically refers to the use of tariffs or import restrictions to inflict economic harm. It was not always so. Before the GATT and its design for the peaceful settlement of commercial disputes, the use of military power in international economics was commonplace. Take the case of the fight over control of nutmeg production in the 1660s.