Traditionally, trade was regulated through bilateral treaties between two nations. After World War II, as free trade emerged as the dominant doctrine, multilateral treaties like the GATT and World Trade Organization (WTO) became the principal regime for regulating global trade.
The WTO, created in 1995 as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), is an international organization charged with overseeing and adjudicating international trade. The WTO deals with the rules of trade between nations at a near-global level; is responsible for negotiating and implementing new trade agreements; and is in charge of policing member countries’ adherence to all the WTO agreements, signed by the majority of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. Additionally, it is the WTO’s duty to review the national trade policies and to ensure the coherence and transparency of trade policies through surveillance in global economic policy making.
Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the WTO has more than 150 members, which represent more than 95% of total world trade. It is governed by a ministerial conference, which meets every 2 years; a general council, which implements the conference’s policy decisions and is responsible for day-to-day administration; and a director-general, who is appointed by the ministerial conference.
Five basic principles guide the WTO’s role in overseeing the global trading system:
Nondiscrimination. This principle inspired two major policies—the most favored nation (MFN) rule and the national treatment policy—embedded in the main WTO rules on goods, services, and intellectual property. The MFN rule requires that a WTO member must apply the same conditions on all trade with other WTO members, that is, a WTO member has to grant the most favorable conditions under which it allows trade in a certain product type to all other WTO members. The national treatment policy, adopted to address nontariff barriers to trade (e.g., technical standards, security standards) dictates that imported and locally produced goods should be treated equally (at least after the foreign goods have entered the market).
Reciprocity. This principle reflects both a desire to limit the scope of free riding that that may arise because of the MFN rule and a desire to obtain better access to foreign markets.
Binding and enforceable commitments. The tariff commitments made by WTO members in a multilateral trade negotiation and on accession are enumerated in a list of concessions. A country can change its commitments but only after negotiating with its trading partners, which could mean compensating them for loss of trade. If satisfaction is not obtained, the complaining country may invoke the WTO dispute settlement procedures.
Transparency. WTO members are required to publish their trade regulations, to maintain institutions charged with review of administrative decisions affecting trade, to respond to requests for information by other members, and to notify changes in trade policies to the WTO.
Safety valves. Under specific circumstances, governments can (within limits) restrict trade to attain noneconomic objectives, to ensure “fair competition,” and under special economic circumstances.
The WTO operates on a “one country, one vote” system, but actual votes have never been taken. Ostensibly, decisions are made by consensus, with relative market size as the primary source of bargaining power. In reality, most WTO decisions are made through a process of informal negotiations between small groups of countries, often referred to as the “green room” negotiations (after the color of the WTO director-general’s office in Geneva) or “miniministerials” when they occur in other countries. These processes have been regularly criticized by many of the WTO’s developing-country members who are often excluded from these negotiations.
The WTO oversees about 60 different agreements that have the status of international legal texts. Member countries must sign and ratify all WTO agreements on accession. Some of the most important agreements concern agriculture, services, and intellectual-property rights.
Regional arrangements such as Mercosur in South America; the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada, and Mexico; ASEAN in Southeast Asia; and the European Union (EU) between 27 independent states constitute a second dimension of the international trade regulatory framework.
The EU is an economic and political union of 27 member states. Committed to regional integration, the EU was established by the Treaty of Maastricht on November 1, 1993, upon the foundations of the preexisting European Economic Community. With almost 500 million citizens, the EU combined generates an estimated 30% share of the nominal gross world-product.
The EU has developed a single market through a standardized system of laws that apply in all member states, ensuring the freedom of movement of people, goods, services, and capital. It maintains common policies on trade, agriculture, fisheries, and regional development. A common currency, the euro, has been adopted by 16 member states known as the Eurozone. The EU has developed a limited role in foreign policy, having representation at the WTO, G8 summits, and at the UN. It enacts legislation in justice and home affairs, including the abolition of passport controls between many member states. Twenty-one EU countries are also members of NATO, those member states outside NATO being Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden.
Mercosur is a regional trade agreement among Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, founded in 1991 by the Treaty of Asunción, which was later amended and updated by the 1994 Treaty of Ouro Preto. Its purpose is to promote free trade and the fluid movement of goods, people, and currency.
Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru currently have associate-member status. Venezuela signed a membership agreement on June 17, 2006, but before becoming a full member, its entry has to be ratified by the Paraguayan and the Brazilian parliaments.
The NAFTA is an agreement signed by the governments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, creating a trilateral trade bloc in North America. The agreement came into force on January 1, 1994. It superseded the Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement. In terms of combined purchasing power, parity GDP of its members, as of 2007 the trade block, is the largest in the world and second largest by nominal GDP comparison. NAFTA has two supplements: the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) and the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC).
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, commonly abbreviated ASEAN, is a geopolitical and economic organization of 10 countries located in Southeast Asia, which was formed on August 8, 1967, by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Since then, membership has expanded to include Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Its aims include the acceleration of economic growth, social progress, cultural development among its members, and the protection of the peace and stability of the region.