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The World Trading System Is On Hold

The international trading system based on the World Trade Organization in Geneva is falling apart.  The Doha Round is brain dead, though the doctors don’t want to cut off life support just yet.  These days, when trade agreements happen, they tend to be bilateral deals or agreements among a small number of countries.

The march to global free trade had a lot of conceptual problems.  The WTO negotiating process is poorly designed and gives insignificant countries more weight than they deserve.  Diminishing returns were bound to set end; each time there is a global trade agreement, negotiators go for the low hanging fruit and leave the difficult issues for later. Now, it’s later — and there isn’t any good fruit left where it’s easy to reach.

For twenty years the WTO and the presumed global benefits of free trade were the core of the globalization agenda.  Under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the WTO was a central focus of American foreign policy.

No more.  Neither the Obama administration or its possible Republican successor will stake much political capital on invigorating a project that only relatively small numbers of Americans support.

Mead to investors: assume no more global trading rounds but no quick repudiation of existing WTO commitments.  Evaluate regional agreements carefully; these are often poorly enforced and in times of crisis often ignored.

To policy makers: don’t advertise this but quietly deprioritize grand trade bargains and use policy flexibility to ensure favorable treatment for important but troubled countries (Egypt, for example).

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  • Luke Lea

    “The march to global free trade had a lot of conceptual problems.” Like its effects on the distribution of income in rich countries when trading with poor ones: the locus classicus here with some commentary here.

    For the general reader nothing beats World Trade and Payments. It’s never too late to learn something new about something that you thought you already knew about but didn’t because you didn’t get a proper education, which is not your fault but theirs.

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