Reforming the WTO through the Prism of Rules- versus Power-based Trade Relations

The Society's 114th Annual Meeting—and first Virtual Annual Meeting—took place June 25–26, 2020. The 2020 Annual Meeting theme, "The Promise of International Law," was an opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures of international law, while reaffirming our commitment to achieving its promise of a more just and peaceful world.

All sessions in this track sponsored by Dechert LLP

The post-war rules-based global trading system stands at a crossroads. All three of the WTO’s main functions—monitoring member states’ trade policies, serving as a forum for trade negotiations, and providing a mechanism to settle trade disputes—are facing criticism and the pressure to reform. While this presents a much needed opportunity to modernize the current system, it is unclear whether a “rules-based” system anchored in binding adjudication in relation to multilaterally-negotiated treaty commitments is stable or even viable over the long-term. Shocks to the system lead major players such as the United States to consider opting out of or undercutting multilateral rules, and emergent powers like China to challenge the adequacy of the established rules. Renegotiation is exceedingly difficult and has not succeeded on a large scale since the Uruguay Round, flexibility mechanisms have failed in many respects, and a reversion toward power-based trade diplomacy seems underway. This panel will address fundamental questions relating to the WTO reform process through John Jackson’s conceptual framework: Is a rules-based system doomed to fail? Can it be rescued? And, more importantly, should it be rescued?

Stephen de Boer, Ambassador of Canada to the WTO
Henry Gao, Singapore Management University
Jennifer Hillman, Council on Foreign Relations
Gabrielle Marceau, World Trade Organisation – UNIGE (Moderator)
(Speaker organizations are shown as of June 2020)