The global trading system has helped to fuel growth and development around the world. It has provided a foundation on which members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) can base their economic planning with confidence, helping to support jobs, lower prices for consumers and prevent trade disputes from escalating into real conflicts. We must ensure that the system continues to play this role, especially at a time of rising trade tensions.
Although trade growth has picked up (now forecast at 3.9% this year), tensions have been escalating rapidly among some major trading partners. Continued escalation would pose an increased threat to stability, to jobs and to the kind of growth that we enjoy today.
We cannot let this happen. There is a responsibility on the entire international community to help ease tensions, in the interests of all our citizens. We need more dialogue – both bilaterally and through the WTO. In fact, this situation is putting a new focus on the multilateral trading system as a place where solutions may be found. At the root of the current tensions is the argument that the trading system is allowing distortive trade practices to go unchecked and therefore, the argument goes, the system needs to change to be more responsive to such measures. Ultimately, this is not a technical discussion. This crisis is political. And it requires a political solution.
This is why a high-level conversation about WTO reform or modernisation is beginning to emerge. It is seen as a way to deal with some of the big trade problems that some members have identified. There are several perspectives being offered. They include, for example, resolving disputes and reaching agreements more rapidly and effectively, addressing a variety of trade distorting practices that are either not covered or are just partially covered by existing disciplines, avoiding protectionism and unilateral actions, advancing the current work, and improving notifications and transparency. These are all important issues – although of course precisely which are taken forward, and how, is for members to determine.
There are members who do not share the view that a reform is needed, but the debate is gathering momentum. WTO reform was at the top of the agenda at the G20 trade ministers’ meeting in Mar del Plata in September. Ministers issued a joint statement after the meeting and committed to work on ways of improving the WTO to ensure that it can meet current and future challenges. They also recommended that leaders address these issues at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. The summit
will be a key moment in this debate.
Meeting modern challenges
While we work to solve these issues, we must also keep up our work elsewhere. This includes finding a solution to the serious impasse in the dispute settlement system. It also includes finding positive routes forward in our deliberations. We have to continue working to find solutions on long-standing issues such as agriculture, food security, development and the elimination of fisheries subsidies. Notably, this also includes the conversations that large groups of members have begun on a number of issues of emerging economic importance such as electronic commerce, investment facilitation, how to support smaller businesses to trade, and the economic empowerment of women. Although this work is not supported by all members, debates are ongoing and engagement is high.
The track record of the WTO shows that we can deliver. But we can take nothing for granted. For all of this to happen, we need to continue strengthening the WTO, fostering cooperation on global economic issues and making the case for a rules-based system that responds to the challenges of today as well as the emerging economic realities of tomorrow. I count on the leadership of the G20 to that end. Working together, we must ensure that the multilateral trading system continues to be a force for good now, and for generations to come.