WOMEN VOTERS OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
733 15TH STREET, NW, SUITE 432, Washington, DC 20005-2112 (202) 347-3020
THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION: ANTECEDENTS AND
This paper summarizes a talk on the WTO given
by Marcus Noland, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Economics,at a
general meeting of the D.C. League of Women Voters on February 16, 2000.
Post World War I Collapse of World Trade
We tend to assume that our world constantly
progresses, that conditions are always improving or advancing. That is not necessarily the
case. World economic integration in the 1890's, or globalization as we now label it, was
surprisingly advanced, quite comparable to that of the 1990's. At the end of the 19`"
century, trade was very free. Goods moved freely across borders. There was tremendous
population movement. Tens of millions of people left other parts of the world, mainly
Europe but also to a certain extent Asia, to settle in North America and other so-called
areas of new settlement. Financial markets were relatively well integrated. Millions of
British pounds (the key currency of that era) moved across national borders. The ECONOMIST
magazine published stock market indexes not only for London, but for New York, Buenos
Aires, and other key markets. That world was underpinned, in economic terms, by the gold
standard and British hegemony. It would take nearly a century to re-attain that level of
economic integration achieved by the end of the nineteenth century.
This "globalization" of a century
ago began to fail at the beginning of the 20th century. It ended with the First World War.
Attempts to revive it after the First World War were unsuccessful. As countries around the
world came under economic pressure in the period after the First World War, they erected
In 1922, the United States passed the
Fordney-McCumber tariff, the largest single increase in the US tariff rates. The US
Constitution grants the Congress the prerogative to regulate international commerce. Thus,
individual Congressmen were in a position to literally trade votes over individual tariff
lines and they did. A Congressman from Texas might have approached a Congressman from New
York offering to vote for a higher tariff on chemicals in return for his vote for a higher
tariff on cotton. There was a horse-trading process by which individual Congressmen struck
deals to get higher tariffs to protect workers and industries in their respective
constituencies. The end result was the huge Fordney-McCumber tariff increase.
The situation worsened when the Great
Depression struck. The United States and other countries began raising tariffs in an
attempt to divert national demand away from imports and toward domestically produced
As the United States and other countries
imposed these tariffs to try to keep national demand internal, the volume of world trade
spiraled downward. To illustrate the resulting contraction of world trade volume, Mr.
Noland referred to the Kindleberger spiral, a visual display of the contraction of trade
over the months following January 1929. (It is the creation of Charles Kindleberger, a
retired professor of economics at M.I.T.) Using twelve spokes of a wheel for the months of
the year, the volume of world trade in any given month is measured along that month's
spoke. The higher the trade, the further out on the spoke it is displayed. The lower the
trade volume, the closer it appears to the wheel's center. In January 1929, the volume of
world trade was about 3 trillion dollars. As countries began imposing trade barriers, the
volume of world trade spiraled downward toward the center. By March 1933, approximately
the time Hitler came to power in Germany, the volume of world trade had fallen to less
than $1 trillion. Along that downward spiral, the United States imposed the infamous 1930
Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Smoot-Hawley proved to be the last time individual Congressmen would
trade votes over tariffs.
This collapse of world trade and the world
economy at the onset of the Great Depression coincided with a rise in extremist movements
all over the world. Given the disastrous subsequent history, we have come to view the
maintenance of world trade and an integrated world economy as essential to the maintenance
of world peace.
Rebuilding a Liberal World Trading System
By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected
President of. the United States, in 1932, world trade was sharply reduced and still
declining. Seeking to reverse this process, Roosevelt sent Secretary of State Cordell Hull
abroad to negotiate lower tariffs. The approaching war in Europe made it extremely
difficult to reach agreements with European countries. Cordell Hull managed, however, to
negotiate a few trade agreements mainly with Latin American countries, which remained
largely outside the war.
Following World War II, the architects of the
postwar world sought to create a new international trade system, a set of rules of the
road, to prevent this kind of collapse from ever happening again. They devised a set of
rules governing how nations would regulate their international commerce. An International
Trade Organization (ITO) was designed to enforce the rules. However, when the US Congress
rejected the ITO in 1950, the ITO was stillborn.
Flawed GATT System as De facto ITO
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
(GATT), negotiated in 1947, was a treaty containing reciprocal obligations to reduce
tariffs following the pattern of US bilateral treaties negotiated by Cordell Hull. GATT
was never intended to become an organization. It was supposed to depend on the ITO for its
organizational context and secretariat services. Nevertheless, it managed to fill the void
left by the failed ITO and emerged as the de facto international trade organization.
GATT is a set of bilateral agreements among
countries around the world. It is basically a global generalization of what the United
States started in the 1930's. A major weakness of the GATT as a world trade organization
was that it had no real enforcement mechanism. If a country broke a bilateral agreement
with another country, nothing could be done. There were some rules for enforcement but
they were basically dysfunctional. Furthermore, the GATT system survived by taking
sensitive areas of trade outside the rules. When member countries' internal political
pressures or special-interest demands became overwhelming, the "rules" were
ignored. Thus, both agriculture and the textile and apparel industries were taken outside
From the late 1940's through the mid 1980's,
the imperfect GATT system was surprisingly successful due to ingenious and highly
pragmatic leadership. The US Congress chose to shield itself from domestic special
interest demands for tariff protection by delegating its Constitutional prerogative over
international trade to the President. Basically, Congress told the President to go out and
make the trade deals and promised to pass them. There followed a series of international
trade negotiations or "rounds," approximately one each decade, during which
bilateral agreements were reached. Congress ratified them.
Trading System under Stress by Mid 1980's
That system of coherent but weakly enforced
rules on the global level and Congressional acquiescence to Executive Branch leadership on
the national level began to come apart in the 1980's. The United States was running very
large trade deficits as well as unprecedented budget deficits. A Republican President and
a Democratic Congress were wrangling over economic restructuring while failing
manufacturing industries, especially in the "rust belt" and the upper mid-West,
sought protection from international competition. The Democratic Congress grew restless
and began to reassert its Constitutional prerogative to regulate trade. There followed a
series of Congressional initiatives that were basically protectionist.
Uruguay Round Trade Issues and Compromises
The Reagan Administration sought to counter
this protectionist trend by calling for a new round of global trade negotiations. The new
round opened in Punta del Este, Uruguay in 1986, and is therefore known as the Uruguay
Round. Negotiations dragged on from 1986 until 1993.
The Uruguay Round came to grips with a number
of festering trade issues. Regional trade pacts, such as the US-Canada Free Trade
Agreement, which would later be generalized as NAFTA, were on the rise. Agriculture and
the textile and clothing industries remained outside the GATT system and needed to be
addressed. Countries wanted some coherent regulation of the growing trade in services, an
area that had never come under the GATT. Producers of high tech and innovative products in
countries such as the United States wanted protection for intellectual property rights.
They wanted rules to stop the pirating of their products, including books, records,
movies, pharmaceuticals and electronics. Finally, there was a need for an improved system
to settle trade disputes. Under the dysfunctional GATT dispute settlement procedures, the
loser in a case could simply block any kind of quasi judicial GATT judgment finding it out
of compliance with treaty obligations.
By 1993, compromises had been negotiated in
all of these areas. Agriculture, politically sensitive in all countries, had been
negotiated but the result was a political compromise, essentially between the United
States and the EU, that allowed both parties to continue practices that were not
consistent with GATT rules. Subsidizing an export industry such as agriculture gives
unjustified advantage to inefficient producers at taxpayer expense while cheating
efficient producers around the world of market opportunities and depressing world prices.
Therefore, GATT rules, though compromised and imperfect, seek to prohibit such subsidies.
Nevertheless, the EU, in particular, has continued to protect its farmers by subsidizing
agriculture and thereby depresses not only US and Canadian farmers' profits but those of
efficient Third-World agricultural producers, such as the Thais. The only winners in this
situation are the EU farmer and poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that need to import
food and do so at artificially low world prices as a consequence of the EU subsidies.
As EU budget cutters have grown impatient with
subsidizing French and German farmers, EU protectionism has begun to shift emphasis to
non-tariff trade barriers such as expensive technical requirements for laboratory testing
and certification of imported food to ascertain its safety. Such requirements place poor
ill-equipped Third-World agricultural exporters at a technical and financial disadvantage.
When a rich European country challenges the quality of a Third World exporter's laboratory
results, the poor exporter faces a non-transparent process. Recent EU rules rejecting
imported hormone-treated beef and genetically modified organisms are another example of
this sort of back-door protectionism. However, in the beef-hormone case, the US
successfully claimed a violation of trade rules and standards to which the EU had agreed
in the Uruguay Round.
It was also agreed during the Uruguay Round
that textiles and apparel would be brought back under the GATT, although completion of
liberalization in these industries was back-loaded. It was to be phased in over ten years.
Most of the real liberalization has yet to occur. Trade in services became subject to a
new General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), although GATS fell short of what the US
wanted. Protection was provided for intellectual property rights. Some very mild
protection for investment was introduced--not as much as the US wanted but as much as
could be gotten in the context of the negotiations.
WTO to Adjudicate Claims of Treaty Violation
Finally, the dispute settlement system was
vastly improved and the WTO was established, in 1995, to adjudicate claims of treaty
violation. Thereafter, a country found to be in violation of its treaty obligations by the
WTO would either have to bring its offending practices into compliance within a specified
period of time or pay WTO-authorized compensation to the injured country. Compensation
would usually be paid in one of two ways. The injured country might impose discriminatory
tariffs against the products of the guilty country consistent with the dollar value of the
injury sustained, as determined by the WTO. Alternatively, the guilty country might have
to reduce its tariffs on imports from the injured country.
Having voluntarily subjected itself to GATT
rules and the WTO enforcement regime, a country in some sense compromises its sovereignty
for perceived economic benefits. However, the WTO cannot force a country to alter its
domestic laws and regulations against its will. The country can always simply refuse to
comply with its trade treaty obligations. The WTO's ultimate weapon in such circumstances
is to require that the non-compliant country compensate the injured country.
It is reassuring that in all but one case so
far, the countries involved in a dispute worked out a solution to a WTO finding of
non-compliance before the case ever reached the stage where compensation had to be
provided. (It is worth noting that the US has brought most of the complaints before the
WTO and has usually won its cases.)
The GATT continues to exist as a substantive
agreement, establishing a set of disciplines on the trade policies of its members. The WTO
itself does not embody substantive rules regarding government policies it is simply
a formal institutional structure under whose auspices members negotiate and implement
their trade agreements.
Seattle Meeting Mandated by Unresolved Issues
Trade issues in agriculture and services were
not satisfactorily resolved during the Uruguay Round. Having made little progress on trade
in agriculture and remaining fundamentally in violation of GATT rules, the US and the EU
agreed not to bring trade cases against each other over violations in agricultural trade
for a period of ten years. This is known as the "peace clause." The "peace
clause" is due to expire in 2003. Because of the "peace clause" and US
dissatisfaction with the services agreement, the Uruguay Round ended with a "built-in
agenda" for further negotiations. It was specified in the Uruguay Round agreement
that the organization would reconvene to address agriculture and services issues.
The "built-in agenda" was the reason
for convening the WTO Trade Ministerial meeting in Seattle at the end of November. Seattle
did not occur because of a ground swell of public support for further trade liberalization
around the world. In fact, most developing countries felt that the Uruguay Round had
saddled them with tremendous obligations that they were having trouble implementing. The
last thing they needed was a new set of obligations to implement. Promised technical
assistance to the developing countries had not been forthcoming. They found themselves to
have undertaken obligations making them subject to punishment for noncompliance, yet they
literally did not have the technical capacity or money to institute required changes.
Nevertheless, the "built-in agenda" loomed. The approaching expiration of the
"peace clause" and the risk of an EU-US agricultural trade war in the offing
meant that new negotiations were urgently needed.
Once underway, new negotiations were not going
to be limited to the "built-in agenda," i.e., agriculture and services.
Anti-dumping laws, a Canadian innovation enthusiastically adopted by the US and more
recently elsewhere around the world, have been a major irritant to many countries,
especially the developing countries, which argue that they are too often used to protect
domestic producers from legitimate import competition. (Economists point out that the way
in which antidumping provisions are implemented produces economically irrational results.)
The Europeans and the Japanese wanted to explore ways of dealing with this problem through
competition policy or, to use US terminology, anti-trust measures. The US did not want to
address this issue. Developing countries were unhappy about investment protections,
limited though they were, specified in the Uruguay Round agreement while the rich OECD
countries were pushing for further investment protections after failing to reach an .
agreement among themselves at OECD-sponsored talks a couple of years ago.
Regionalism-sorting out how regional trade agreements such as NAFTA are to fit fairly and
legally into this global system-needed to be addressed. Finally, there were the new social
policy issues, labor standards, human rights and protection of the environment-headline
issues in the US but not necessarily elsewhere in the world. And not to be forgotten,
there were the normal tariff-cutting deals that are always on the agenda in a trade round.
The Seattle Fiasco
The Seattle Ministerial was a fiasco. Street
protests, police tear gassing, fist fights and inability of foreign delegates to even
enter the building where the meetings were held made headline news. Foreign delegates were
outraged by the abuse to which they were subjected. Some negotiators from developing
countries regarded their bad treatment as an intentional attempt by the US government to
physically intimidate foreign delegations-a quite plausible tactic in many of their own
countries. Foreign delegates got their backs up. Although little reported by the press,
there was a substantive fiasco as well. The fundamental conflict between the EU and the US
over agriculture could not be overcome.
Finally, President Clinton arrived telling
everyone that he thought it might be a good idea to use trade sanctions to enforce
workers' rights in other countries. His comments sabotaged efforts underway to find a
compromise. There had been a compromise proposed by the EU, accepted by labor according to
sources in the AFL-CIO, and even by developing country delegations, such as the Indian
delegation, that have traditionally been very skeptical regarding this issue. President
Clinton's comments scared people off.
The Road Ahead: Lessons from Seattle
From an insider's perspective, Seattle marked
the debut of the developing countries as highly organized assertive players pursuing their
own trade interests. Believing that they had been taken to the cleaners in the Uruguay
Round, the developing countries were determined not to let that happen again. Coalitions
formed among developing country delegations. It is clear that the developing countries as
a block have to be taken seriously in the future. OECD countries will no longer be able to
strike a deal and expect the rest of the world to acquiesce to its terms.
The Seattle debacle leaves us with the
prospect of an agricultural trade war in 2003 when the "peace clause" expires.
Moreover, there is new recognition, based on Seattle, that if the US and, to a secondary
extent, the EU want to pursue the linkage of environmental objectives and labor standards
to trade, they will have to do something to woo the developing countries. Confidence
building measures or, in economic jargon, down payments will be needed to persuade the
developing countries to enter into serious negotiations on these issues. Recognizing this,
the EU and, secondarily, Japan have been trying to organize new low-key negotiations with
a much narrower agenda. Such mini-negotiations would focus on down payments, to convince
the developing countries of our good faith, and on the "built-in agenda,"
agriculture and services. Hopefully, once underway, such negotiations might also deal with
competition policy, investment and the newer labor and environment issues.
The WTO will have to reach some accommodation
with the movement to enforce human rights, labor and environmental standards through trade
sanctions. Mr. Noland is, however, convinced that such standards must be negotiated in
relevant expert bodies, an upgraded International Labor Organization (ILO) and a
not-yet-created Global Environmental Organization (GEO). Judgments regarding
non-compliance with thus created labor and environmental standards would also best be
handled by those agencies. However, by recognizing the legality of ILO and GEO findings of
non-compliance, the WTO could permit member countries to apply trade sanctions against
guilty countries without themselves becoming subject to findings of non-compliance with
their GATT/WTO treaty obligations..
The long arduous negotiations required to
achieve such a solution will most likely not quiet the NGO protestors, who seek quick
solutions. Winning the cooperation of the developing countries is vital if we are to
succeed. The rampage in Seattle infuriated delegates from the Third World and set this
whole process back.
Lacking "Fast-Track" US Sits out
While the EU and Japan have been trying to
initiate new talks, the US has remained relatively passive for two reasons. First,
President Clinton has been unable to win "fast-track" negotiating authority from
Congress. Because the US Constitution gives the Congress the prerogative to regulate
international commerce, when the President through his Office of the US Trade
Representative (USTR) negotiates new trade agreements, Congress could normally amend those
agreements. Obviously, other countries would not negotiate with the US knowing that very
sensitive compromises worked out at the WTO might be altered by the US Congress.
Therefore, to make US negotiations credible, Congress has for the past twenty-five years
committed itself for specified periods of time to vote on trade agreements in a simple
yes/no manner without any possibility of amendment. This is called "fast-track"
negotiating authority. President Clinton's last two attempts to win "fast-track"
negotiating authority from Congress have failed. The President is unlikely to win
"fast-track" authority during an election year and the next administration will
not complete the appointment of new officials and gear up for serious trade negotiations
before May or June of 2001. The US is simply not ready to play.
Winning Permanent "NTR" for China
The second reason for US passivity concerning
new trade talks is that the President's immediate trade priority is to win permanent
"normal trade" status (NTR) for China. China is the battle in which he will
spend his political capital. He will not use his political capital on
"fast-track." Nor will he use it to repair the damage inflicted on the WTO in
China is not a member of the WTO and does not
enjoy permanent "normal trading" status. To become a member of the WTO, China
must, of course, apply. To succeed in gaining membership, it must then negotiate
bilaterally with the countries that are already members to reach agreements on tariffs,
agriculture, services, etc. When negotiations are completed, the WTO Secretariat will
compile them into a document called a "protocol" embodying the best possible
deal that any WTO member got. This is the origin of the phrase "most-favored
nation." For example, if China agreed to a 10% tariff on watches with country A and a
5% tariff on watches with country B, both country A and country B would get the better
deal, the 5%. Moreover, so would all of the other member countries. They would get the
best deal that any member was able to negotiate. The US has reached a bilateral agreement
with China. The EU is the last major player that must negotiate with China. Those
negotiations are going on now.
China is, of course, a "specified"
Communist or nonmarket economy subject to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, an artifact of the
Cold War, passed in the 1970's to encourage the former Soviet Union to permit the
emigration of Jews. Thus, it is among the countries which the President, if Congress so
demands, must certify annually to be meeting certain obligations. Until the 1989
Tianarimen Square massacre this was a pro forma process. Since 1989, annual Presidential
certification of China to grant it "most-favored nation" status or what is now
called "normal trading relation" status has been politically rancorous. Yet,
Congress has always voted in favor of annual renewal of "normal trading "status
for China and, in the last several years, Congressional margins supporting the
Administration have grown larger.
When China accedes to the WTO, the US must
grant China permanent "normal trading" status. Should the US fail to grant China
"normal trading relation" status, we would violate our WTO obligations to
another member country and China has made it clear that it would not accept a continuation
of the annual renewal of certification a dubious practice under WTO rules. China
insists that its "normal trading" status be made permanent.
The upcoming Congressional vote for or against
permanent "normal trading relation" status for China is not a vote to permit
China to accede to the WTO. That decision was made by President Clinton when he signed the
bilateral agreement with China late last year. The US has already signed off on China's
entry into the WTO. China is going into the WTO as soon as it reaches an agreement with
The political priority accorded to the
upcoming China vote is demonstrated by President Clinton's decision to seek Congressional
approval of permanent "normal trading" status for China before the WTO protocol
is drafted, i.e., before Chinese negotiations with the EU are completed and, therefore,
before we know what the final deal will be. There is, of course, no risk in going ahead
with an early vote, treating this as a bilateral deal with China, because the worst terms
would be those that we have already gotten from the Chinese. If the EU were to win better
terms from the Chinese, we would get whatever terms the Europeans had managed to
A Social Safety Net for Displaced Workers
With organized labor strongly opposed to
President Clinton's effort to win permanent "normal trading relation" status for
China, it would be wise to reconsider US worker adjustment assistance to trade-affected
workers. We know that adjustment assistance for workers displaced by imports resulting
from NAFTA has generally failed to reach non-unionized workers in small and medium-size
enterprises. Workers who have succeeded in tapping such help are typically unionized
higher-wage earners in large companies. Such narrow targeting of aid, e.g., on
NAFTA-affected workers alone, does not seem to work very well. Moreover, it is an approach
that seems unfair to workers elsewhere in this dynamic US economy who are losing their
jobs to technological innovation or structural changes stemming from changes in the US tax
code. Mr. Noland therefore argued in favor of a broader approach offering help to anyone
injured by structural changes in the economy no matter whether those structural changes
are tech-driven, trade-driven or tax-code-driven.
Summarized by LWVDC member Janet Burmester,
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