Future of the WTO: Noise versus Trend (Richard Steinberg)
Of course the claim that the WTO is dead as a location for negotiation was a bit rhetorical, intended to drive home the point (not rhetorical) that the GATT/WTO system is of decreasing importance as an engine for trade liberalization. Anu, Greg, and Daniel would seem to agree. Yet I think I am more pessimistic about the WTO than Anu and Greg (not yet sure about Daniel).
Yes, conclusion of the Doha Round is possible—but what a disappointing and modest result it would be. And yes, dispute settlement may help restrain protectionism in the next few years (which is not trivial, when one thinks back to the Great Depression) and advance a process analogous to the ECJ’s “negative harmonization” period in the 1970s and early 1980s—but court-led liberalization is slow and piecemeal. Plurilaterals or a variable geometry in the future? Maybe, but there are disadvantages (as well as advantages) of doing that at the WTO. At best, multilateral liberalization is on a very slow track.
It is not clear that multilateralism is dying at the same rate across all issue areas. The structure of multilateral games varies across issue areas (and linkage across issue areas is usually not part of the story).
Nonetheless, I am pessimistic enough to raise the idea that hegemonic stability theory (which has long thought to have been dead) may have been fundamentally correct. Not in its brittle stalks form (there are lags, of course, as institutions and words matter), but in its basic structural claim that as power diffuses, global regimes will weaken. Power is diffusing, not just in trade, but also in finance and military affairs. [The idea that we live in an imperial or hegemonic world (which was taken for granted by many just eight years ago) is not so easy to defend. In historical terms, Iraq was a small war, yet we are spent. “The most powerful nation in the world” is beside the point. Putin owns the Caucuses and is (diplomatically) pushing the Yalta line in the Balkans. The PRC is building naval capacity at a rapid rate. Nukes are diffusing. . . As for money, do I need to make the argument?]
If hegemonic stability theory is essentially right, then the golden age of international law is ending. Global law-making is harder; more international law-making will be regional or plurilateral. This seems roughly consistent with the story in trade: gridlock at the WTO and the explosion of regional and bilateral free trade agreements.
And if the theory is essentially right, then the examples that Anu gives for tempered optimism about the future of the WTO, and Greg’s proposal for reforming the main decision-making rule and arguments about export-oriented interests still favoring liberalization, look more like noise than the main story-line for the WTO.
[In the next installment, I may have to back away from hanging my hat on hegemonic stability theory alone, but I am kind of curious how much weight the idea can be bear. . .]