Future of the WTO: "Death" of the WTO and Hegemonic Stability Theory
Thank you to Richard for the provocative and interesting comments about the death of the WTO and hegemonic stability theory (HST). Let me address the WTO issue first and the HST question second.
While I am certainly extremely pessimistic about the immediate prospects for breaking the gridlock at the WTO or producing tangible results from the Doha round, I am not sure that it is completely helpful to think in terms of the WTO's life or death. Perhaps it is better to ask if the structural and political conditions under which the WTO can succeed as a negotiation venue still exist. I think the answer is no. If the internal economic differences among the great powers is more pronounced today than in the past, to see any multilateral progress we would need a greater convergence of economic interests. As Anu noted, "China exports primarily manufactured goods, India services and Brazil agricultural products. Russia's economy, if admitted to join the club, depends on natural resources." Moreover, as Richard points out, the China, India, Brazil and Russia share of the WTO's GDP is growing and might approach "multipolarity" in 2025. If Anu and Richard are correct and about the internal characteristics and my tentative claim about the necessity of shared economic interests among great powers is true, it appears that the WTO's lacks the underlying conditions for success as a negotiation venue.
For the time being, it seems like the WTO will struggle. But, as Richard notes, it does not mean that we will not see continued regional and bilateral trade deals. Greg is probably correct in stating that global interdependence has gone so far and the incentives for continued discussion are so great that we should still see some form of continued liberalization; I am just doubtful that the forum will be the WTO. Greg locates some of the WTO’s challenges in domestic politics and points out that some key domestic groups in emerging economies have not been mobilized that would presumably support the WTO as a negotiation venue. While I agree that domestic preferences matter, it is not clear if they always cut in favor or against trade liberalization, whether at the WTO or regional level. Domestic groups may very well push for a new policy of trade liberalization that includes greater concern for internal social and political distributional consequences. They might prefer agreements with countries that share more compatible economic interests, making the WTO a next-best option after regional and bilateral agreements. Domestic preferences might have significant variation that could both hurt and hinder trade liberalization . For me, the diffusion of economic power and diversity of economic interests among great powers--a change in the underlying conditions--have limited the WTO's capacity as a venue for negotiation.
What is HST? Though HST is quite contested, it basically stands for the proposition that a hegemonic state is a prerequisite for the operation of an open, international trade or financial system. The hegemon deals with the collective action issues--state-by-state interests trumping the global benefit of trade--by providing free trade as a public good. Why? It is in the hegemon's self interest because the hegemon is arguably the biggest beneficiary of the open trading and financial system. For many, HST simply transports some of the realist predictions about outcomes in the security realm and applies them to the trade world.
As one might imagine, this is difficult to prove. First, the data is limited and difficult to falsify. We have basically two test cases: the UK in the mid-19th century and the US over the past 60 years (even this is contested--see Joel Trachtman's post about the WTO as evidence against the HST). Second, it is not clear what a hegemon is, how long it needs to dominate the international system before an international trade system is evident, or if it must necessarily be democratic. Third, it is not clear that free trade is impossible in bipolar or multipolar systems, particularly since previous periods of interdependence were ended by great power wars that, in this day and age, are much less imaginable. Fourth, some argue that it is not the hegemon's presence per se; rather it is the willingness of other states to accept some sort of hierarchy in international politics. It is conceivable, if you are a constructivist or institutionalist that the norm of free trade and its attendant institutions could last well beyond the dominance of the hegemon, leading to open international trade systems even in its absence.
That being said, HST might show some sort of correlation with free trade but not causation. Though I have not read the literature on the point recently, HST likely implicitly assumes that the economic interests of the hegemon are at least somewhat consistent with the economic interests of the other powers; if not, it is not clear how it would impose its will without purely coercive methods. And, in today's world, since it is unlikely that coercion is an option and great power economic interests appear quite diverse, the result may be a free trade system that has reached its limit--a system not unlike the WTO.
Finally, Richard states that "multilateral liberalization is on a very slow track," and Greg states that "[w]e just need to be realistic about what it can accomplish in these times." Maybe the death of the WTO is a narrow question about the glass half-empty or half-full…