Ronald Reagan paved the path to the WTO. Motivated by an ambition to counter unfair trade, Reagan declared “if trade is not fair for all, then trade is free in name only. I will not stand by and watch American businesses fail because of unfair trading practices abroad.
I will not stand by and watch American workers lose their jobs because other nations do not play by the rules.” Later Reagan launch the Uruguay round GATT negotiations that eventually concluded with the forming of the WTO in 1995 charged with guarding a rules-based trading system with a focus on reducing barriers to trade. Through his insistence negotiating objectives included dramatic lowering of global tariff rates, ensuring national treatment of traded goods, and protection of intellectual property.
By no means has the WTO achieved free-trade or eradicated all unfair trade practices. Recently, Senator Josh Hawley raised some common shortcomings of the WTO in a NYT op-ed, and concluded that it should be abolished. His concerns center on the fact that China, which acceded to the WTO, continues to violate the international trade system’s norms without making expected market or democratic reforms. He notes that China uses forced labor and theft of intellectual property with impunity. In return, he claims, the U.S. has seen a flight of jobs overseas, and U.S. agriculture has been undercut at home due to imports.
This contrasts with what Trump’s chief trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, testified to the Senate Finance Committee that “if we did not have the WTO, we would need to invent it” as it “offers many opportunities for the United States to advance our interests on trade.” It is also not legally possible to abolish the WTO unilaterally. Instead, a few days later, Hawley introduced a bill to take the U.S. out of the WTO. Such a joint resolution is unamendable, does not require committee approval, and cannot be delayed. In other words, if Hawley’s resolution reaches the Senate floor within 90 legislative days after the submission of USTR’s February 28 report, it will force a Senate referendum on the merits of the United States remaining in the WTO.
Hawley’s concerns are legitimate. It’s worth considering if leaving the WTO would resolve the issues he raises while avoiding harmful unintentional consequences.
Overall, since the founding of the WTO, global tariffs have been cut in half, global trade increased from $58 billion in 1948 to above $20 trillion today. Global trade openness, the sum of imports and exports as a share of global GDP increased from 5 percent to 22 percent (peaking just before the financial crisis). U.S. has reaped the most economic value from membership adding $87 billion to the economy. While those left outside the WTO have seen their exports decrease and GDP contract.
Inside the WTO, U.S. exports benefit from a relatively low Most-Favored Nation tariff rate imposed by partners and U.S. importers from a very low average 3.3% MFN tariff rate imposed by Washington D.C. Outside the WTO, imports to the U.S. will face an average 32% tariff rate. U.S. exports will also face discriminatory tariff rates imposed by other countries and designed with same goal in mind- to encourage membership in the trade organization.
Inside the WTO the U.S. benefits from lower trade barriers with all 164 country members, allowing our market-based economy to concentrate on working to its comparative advantage. Since joining the WTO, industrial output increased 50%, 32 million jobs have been added, and nonfarm compensation has risen 32%.
As a member of the WTO the U.S. has access to a predictable process-oriented dispute resolution system. The U.S. wins 85.4 percent of its WTO dispute cases. In particular, the United States gets good results, when defending its own policies towards China. Between 2002-2018 the US had won 11of out 24 cases against China.
Indeed, the system could be improved to further restrain bad actors, reform appellate panel decisions, and address unresolved trade barriers such as subsidies and e-commerce. Outside the WTO, the U.S. will be immediately hit with higher tariffs and be exposed to an even more illiberal trade order. It would create radical uncertainty in the markets undermining our comparative advantage and provide little certainty towards resolving trade disputes.
Persistent, illicit trade practices and stalled reforms at the WTO seriously hinder American importers and exporters from experiencing the full benefits of a free market. However, it is not clear that withdrawal from or abolishment of the WTO will resolve these issues or avoid creating new barriers.