Sergio Marchi by Fantake via Flickr
We hear many refrains from trade supporters and critics alike. But one that unites both camps is the need to ‘strengthen’ the WTO.
Indeed, in a shrinking, integrated world, where most of our multilateral institutions were created in the aftermath of WWII, strengthening the system would be a hugely important and timely endeavor.
While the force of the ideas— the poetry —will ultimately determine the quality of the renewal agenda, countries first must adjust the plumbing.
Plumbing? Let me explain.
1. First, the WTO is an invaluable institution.
It plays a vital role in our international community. If we did not have the WTO — in a global village where every country has aggressive commercial ambitions, and where rules thus become an absolute imperative —- we’d have to create one.
But we also have the obligation to nurture the institution. To situate it in the political and economic times we live in.
2. Second, the WTO can be made better.
It is not infallible, and those who deny any reform will inadvertently weaken the institution over time. Good ideas can be turned into effective improvements, that would serve to reinvigorate the WTO.
Over the years, there have been many recommendations for improvements, but they have gone nowhere because they have had no process to feed into. Moreover, the lack of any follow up only breeds frustration and cynicism on the part of the trade stakeholders.
3. Thirdly, we cannot put the cart before the horse.
We need a process. In other words, we need a ‘horse’, so that it can pull our cart of reform ideas. Only then will ideas have an opportunity to be transformed into agents of change
4. Fourth, the process must be one that is endorsed, owned, and led by WTO Members themselves.
As an intergovernmental institution, successful change must be agreed to from the inside. While civil society can contribute, change will not be imposed by the outside.
5. Fifth, Ministers must be fully engaged.
First, Ministers act as the collective ‘Chairman of the Board’ for the WTO. The political buck stops with them. Second, as elected representatives they have a pivotal role in ensuring that the voices of their citizens — the ‘share holders ’—are heard. And third, Ministers should not just be summoned to the WTO for trade negotiations alone. Ministers must also provide the strategic oversight and leadership so desperately required.
Yet, the reality is that beyond negotiations, the WTO does not ask much else from Ministers. This is a serious gap, which should be addressed with appropriate urgency.
6. Sixth, some feel the timing is not right; that we must exclusively deal with completing the Doha Round of Negotiations (DDA) first.
I fully support the DDA. Indeed, I was there when we launched it. But I strongly disagree with those that argue that we cannot ‘walk and chew gum’ at the same time. Quite frankly, we can and must do both. Not only would they be on separate tracks, but a more effective WTO would only facilitate negotiations, and not make them more difficult.
In closing, the members need to understand that the WTO is not just about the DDA. It is much more. And ‘betting the entire farm’ on the DDA has been a strategic error. The WTO’s credibility is on the line.
Countries cannot afford, therefore, to be timid about change. They instead need to guide and shape reform, as a tool for reinvigorating and strengthening the WTO. In this regard, they must first and urgently adjust the plumbing.
Ambassador Sergio Marchi is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development. He formerly served as Canada’s International Trade Minister and Ambassador to the WTO, including as Chairman of the WTO General Council. He is also a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. When you need him at your conference, do get in touch.