Future of the WTO: Limited Options
Anu's post provides a thoughtful guide for the potential of global governance and multilateralism outside the WTO structure. Since I share her view that the WTO is unlikely to be the forum for "new, meaningful trade deals" in the immediate future, I just want to add two short comments.
First, Anu's post recognizes that the underlying structural conditions, including the diffusion of economic power and the divergence of economic interests among the powerful states, make cooperation through the WTO very difficult. She writes: "[i]n the multi-polar world where interests diverge, coercive power against equals is rarely available and where an increasing number of powerful states guard vigorously their sovereignty, the best multilateral governance that can be accomplished will be voluntary." At the same time both Anu and Greg--in previous posts--are sensitive to the fact that domestic preferences matter, and interdependence has increased the demand for coordinated solutions to global problems, suggesting that the "stakes are too high to give up on multilateralism altogether."
A hard-core realist might argue that if the underlying structural environment for cooperation on trade issues does not exist, norms, domestic preferences and the creations of new institutions (or modification of existing institutional rules) cannot sustain meaningful multilateral attempts at global governance. But this might overemphasize the role of structure and minimize other factors. Contrary to the purely realist story, norms about free trade, domestic preferences and institutions sometimes matter; the issue is how the underlying structure conditions the influence of these factors on international outcomes. As Anu noted in the portion of her post quoted above, we happen to be in a world in which the structural issues among the powerful states are entrenched and limit the influence of domestic preferences and norms on outcomes.In other words, it may be a temporary phenomenon, not a permanent one.
Second, Anu's G-10 proposal appears to reflect the constraints of the current international political environment. Though it wisely focuses on the distribution of economic power and state interests, she acknowledges that the proposal "may end up being little more than a status symbol and a talking shop." This might be all we can do now at the multilateral level until the economic interests of the powerful states begin to converge and make it possible for meaningful global governance. In the meantime, regional or bilateral trade agreements may represent the "second-best" way forward.