WTO stalemate in Buenos Aires

Submitted by martin on 20 December, 2017 - 9:45 Author: Martin Thomas
Trump is impatient with world trade rules

"Expectations were low as the meeting began in the Argentine capital", or so the Economist magazine reported on the latest World Trade Organisation meeting of trade ministers, in Buenos Aires on 10-13 December.

"They sank even lower as it progressed. Delegates failed to agree on a joint statement, let alone on any new trade deals".

Eighteen years ago, at a similar meeting in Seattle in November 1999, the WTO appeared as a manifestation of the chiefs of global capital triumphantly carving up the world. Tens of thousands of anti-capitalist protesters, trade-unionists, students, and others, protested on the streets of Seattle.

The Seattle protest inspired dozens of other protests at global-capitalist gatherings (IMF, WEF, etc.) and a series of world and regional Social Forum gatherings.

Since then, both counter-globalisation and capitalist-globalisation momentum has ebbed.

The WTO was launched in 1995 as a successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, an evolving international legal agreement which originated in 1948, and which through seven "rounds" of negotiations had expanded to reduce tariffs from an average of 22% to an average of 5%, and to include 123 countries after starting with 23.

The WTO, as distinct from GATT, is an organisation, with membership conditions and (cumbersome and long-winded) disputes procedures.

Since it was launched in 1995, it has been trying without success to push through an eighth round of general trade-freeing negotiations, with no result other than some minor deals in Bali in 2013.

Impasse in the WTO was one reason why the USA and the EU embarked on TTIP, a "Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership", in 2013; but that project never looked buoyant, and with Trump as US president is now sunk.

Nevertheless the WTO exists. It has expanded to 164 member states, including pretty much all those having significant weight in world trade.

It is weighty enough that many Tories say that a hard Brexit will be no big problem for trade, because World Trade Organisation rules will provide enough protection against too-high trade barriers.

The USA used to be the main mover in GATT and the WTO. Donald Trump has said: "The WTO was set up for the benefit [of] everybody but us... They have taken advantage of this country like you wouldn’t believe. We lose the lawsuits, almost all of the lawsuits in the WTO". That's nowhere near true. The USA does have a lot of complaints brought against it under WTO rules, and loses them more often than not. It tends to win its complaints against other states.

WTO insiders are seriously worried that Trump's USA may destroy the WTO from inside, by blocking the appointment of new judges to operate its tribunals.

Trump's Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, is a right-wing economic nationalist, but seems less inclined to slash-and-burn than Trump himself. He told the Buenos Aires meeting: "The WTO is obviously an important institution. It does an enormous amount of good".

And when an attempt to get new global rules for e-commerce could not get enough traction among all 164 states represented in Buenos Aires, the USA joined a group of 70 which said they would nevertheless try to get a deal among themselves.

Globalised capitalism and neoliberalism are still up and running. But now we must be aware that, as well as us trying to subvert them from the left, in the direction of solidarity and social equality, there are others trying to subvert them from the right, towards nationalist regression.

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