Confusion Reigns as U.S. Contemplates Leaving World Trade Organization

The future of the World Trade Organization may not become a 2020 presidential election campaign issue, but its fate is central to the ability to enforce a free and fair global trading system, two former U.S. trade officials said.

In a briefing for the National Press Foundation, the former officials argued that the WTO is an indispensable institution and should be revived and reformed as referee with power to enforce global trade rules.   Former U.S. trade official Andrea Durkin, editor of TradeVistas.org, presented new polling data showing that  19% of Americans “strongly support” U.S. withdrawal from WTO and 17% “somewhat support” leaving; 35% are “indifferent” or “unsure,” while 28 percent oppose withdrawal. Of those,18 percent “strongly” object to quitting WTO.

Fewer than half think the Geneva-based trade organization helps U.S. companies compete on fair terms. But the more people know about WTO (including distinguishing it from the embattled World Health Organization, whose acronym  sounds confusingly similar to the uninitiated), the more likely they are to support the U.S. remaining engaged, Durkin said. She explains the nuts and bolts of the WTO and why it matters here.

Jennifer Hillman of the Council on Foreign Relations painted a bleak picture of how much ground U.S. business has lost in the trade war with China under President Donald Trump. She argued that worse is to come, for everything from steel to agriculture, if the U.S. continues to undermine the WTO. (Hillman is an adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden but was speaking in her private capacity.)

“President Trump has repeatedly described himself as the tariff man,” Hillman said. But the tariffs are paid by U.S. importers, not foreigners, and they have not accomplished their goals, she said.

“They have not made our steel or our aluminum industries more vibrant or improved our national security,” she added. “They have not brought about significant change in China’s unfair trading practices. And, because they violate our WTO obligations, to charge no more in tariffs than we agree to in our tariff schedule, they are promoting a sense of lawlessness and chaos in the trading system.”

Hillman predicted that a Biden administration would not try to strike new trade agreements before moving to strengthen the competitiveness of the American workers, which has been eroded. While other developed countries are spending 2% to 3% of GDP on worker training, the U.S. spends only 0.27%. “We simply are not investing in our workers or giving them the tools that they need to be competitive in a globalized trade world,” she said.

Bryce Baschuk, a business journalist for Bloomberg News in Geneva, explained why the WTO is likely to remain leaderless until after the U.S. election following the departure of former Director-General Roberto Azevêdo. Baschuk briefed journalists on the dynamics of the opaque selection process. The U.S. and China been unable to agree on a successor, leaving the organization in limbo. Neither country will even say which successor it prefers for fear the other will veto that candidate, Baschuk said.

Baschuk also dispensed advice for journalists who suddenly need to cover an organization that was once seen as less than newsworthy but is now central to a fierce U.S.-China struggle for power over a range of international regulatory bodies. His tips are here. His main message: Be persistent.

This program is funded by the Hinrich Foundation. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

Jennifer A. Hillman
Senior Fellow for Trade and International Political Economy, Council on Foreign Relations
Andrea Durkin
Editor-in-chief, TradeVistas
Bryce Baschuk
Reporter, Bloomberg Economics
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WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION RESOURCES
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POLLING DATA ON U.S. ATTITUDES TOWARD THE WTO
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BACKGROUND ON WTO ISSUES
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MISSIONS TO THE WTO
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TRADE DATA RESOURCES, U.S.
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TRADE DATA RESOURCES, GLOBAL
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TIPS AND POINTERS FROM JOURNALISTS COVERING TRADE
Jennifer Hillman briefs journalists on the future of the World Trade Organization. She argues that U.S. business has lost in the trade war with China under President Donald Trump.
Andrea Durkin on Polling Data on WTO
Bryce Baschuk on How to Cover the WTO Remotely
Full panel presentation with Q&A
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