Bracketology: Drafting Trade Agreements

You won’t find it in the Merriam Webster dictionary, but the term “bracketology” does appear in the Oxford Living Dictionary online.


The art of bracketology is also practiced in trade negotiations, but it’s a different matter altogether – an endeavor where busting the brackets means achieving agreement.

From First Round to Final Four

The World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiates in “rounds” too, but all members participate in this tournament and if the trade negotiators do their jobs well, we all win. March Madness starts with 64 teams with just two on the court at one time. WTO negotiations involve 164 members and “plenary” sessions put them all on the court at one time.

These sessions serve important purposes, allowing members to explain their general views, share factual information, and ensure there’s a common understanding about how negotiations will proceed. But it’s typically too hard to advance agreement on trade commitments in this format.


More often, negotiating groups are created around specific subject matter enabling detailed discussion by negotiators who are expert in those areas. In some cases, one or two sentences take on such importance that negotiators meet to work out language on a single phrase or paragraph that can be taken back to the larger group for consideration. Form follows function, balancing what needs to be achieved with mindfulness toward transparency, perceived fairness in the process, and objective communication back to members not present.

While necessary to keep negotiations moving, members must be sensitive that a majority of WTO members are developing nations. Smaller countries in particular might not maintain offices in Geneva, Switzerland, where most of the meetings occur. The topics negotiated in the WTO have both expanded in breadth and increased in complexity over subsequent rounds of negotiation, engendering thousands of meetings each year, which can be overwhelming to cover for smaller delegations.

Coach, Referee and Cheerleader: The Chairperson’s Role

For all of these reasons, delegations to the WTO often choose a chairperson to help shepherd and produce an agreement among the members. These individuals have earned the trust and respect of their peers and are chosen for their ability to be an honest broker of views and objective in their approach to the proceedings.

Chairpersons at the WTO wear many hats. They organize and manage the process (for which there’s no set playbook), making decisions about structure, flow, format, timing, and frequency of meetings. They ferret out the true basis of sticking points, identify misperceptions, and call for impartial analysis when it could help advance discussions. They deploy their own deep knowledge of the issues to imagine solutions or vehicles for more productive discussion. Of course, sometimes their role is to simply cheerlead from the sidelines of member-driven negotiations.

Chairpersons Must Have Mad Skillz

A skillful chairperson can play a pivotal role securing agreement among WTO members. To make progress, they rely on various techniques at different stages of negotiation.

They don’t hide the ball: Being a good communicator is essential to the job. Effective chairs discern the nature of member concerns, share information important for the entire group to have, and accurately record discussions. They aren’t supposed to posture the way delegates might; instead, their job is to move delegates past assumptions and misperceptions standing in the way of an agreement.

They can call new plays: Trusted chairs become sounding boards for delegates to explore flexibilities. Chairs recognize that, from our differences, new ideas and opportunities can emerge to create value for the entire membership. The more information a chair has from consultations with members, the more likely they can develop a text that focuses members on common interests and creative alternatives members can endorse.

They referee the game: A chair in trade negotiations is often trusted by delegates to help broker deals, particularly in the end game when the agreement is reduced to a small number of issues that may be of particular interest to a few delegations.

Writing the Rules as a Team Sport

Submitting text for consideration is a powerful way to steer conversations, prompt reactions from counterparts, and influence what goes in a finally agreed text. Delegations may be invited to offer papers or submit information but may also take initiative throughout the negotiation. But writing the final rules by committee doesn’t work well. A single negotiating text can help a large group move towards an agreement. Unserious proposals can fall away. Analysis and decision-making are helpfully reduced for delegations to fewer issues.

To move toward a single agreed text, it can be useful to appoint one person – such as the Chairperson – to “take the pen” as it were. The chairperson can review for uniformity in approach, take passes at reducing duplication, and develop a document that all members can become invested in, enabling them to move away from their individual submissions when they see their views adequately reflected in the common document.

If the chair’s text is done well, it helps the members focus on areas of convergence and agreement without appearing to or unintentionally ignoring a position important to some delegations. What to do then for issues where delegates have offered opposing views?

Where the Brackets Come In

Chair’s texts are not binding. A chairperson might present a draft under their own responsibility with no brackets at all because the entire document is considered to be in brackets. Members have not yet offered criticism, views, or positive feedback in such a version. Alternatively, the chairperson can use square brackets throughout the document to present conflicting proposals from members or indicate disagreement. If successful, members will work from this proposal to resolve the brackets.

WTO bracket with example

Busting [Brackets] is a Team Sport

This is not a game where the best bracket wins. It’s a negotiated outcome where everyone’s brackets have been busted in favor of text that serves the needs and goals of all members.

Often times, competing language in brackets is added by negotiators to the point where documents become impossible to read, before exhausting this expansion approach in favor of integrated, streamlined language. At the right time in negotiations, lawyers can help resolve brackets by replacing political words with legal terms that offer greater specificity and clarity.

At Georgetown, I co-teach a negotiation simulation with trade lawyer Andy Shoyer. We allow the delegates a week before our plenary session in class to reflect on a common text and “shop” their views and alternative texts with other delegations. They are free to share any emerging agreements with the Chairs (me and Andy). Mid-week, we release a Chair’s Text under our own responsibility.

The students wonder whether their tactics have been reflected in the Chair’s Text and where new language came from (we are not honest brokers – we throw curveballs for educational purposes). They regroup within their own delegation to position off the new text and consult other delegations. The process begins again, reflecting the fluid nature of an agreement that is still well beyond reach.

This year the U.S. delegation secured agreement from the EU delegation to use their own proposed text in plenary, but as Chairs we felt this would be unfair to delegations seeing it for the first time who lacked opportunity to consult back in capital – it was a lesson about how the predictability and transparency of the process matters.

Our text acquired many new brackets in our plenary session before delegates realized we could not gain consensus without making some compromises and zeroing in on what mattered most to each. That’s when the brackets started coming off and new possibilities for agreement came into view.