The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Hobbling an Already Weakened WTO

The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Hobbling an Already Weakened WTO
The headquarters of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec. 3, 2019 (Kyodo photo via AP Images).

At a time when global cooperation is desperately needed, it seems to be scarcer than ever. G-20 leaders have effectively given up on trying to coordinate a global response to the coronavirus pandemic. Countries are beggaring their neighbors with export restrictions on medicines and food, and scrambling to snatch up medical supplies where they remain available. Among the various closures and cancellations to try to contain the spread of COVID-19, the World Trade Organization announced in March that it was cancelling the biennial ministerial meeting scheduled for June in Kazakhstan.

The cancellation of a WTO ministerial meeting has barely registered in the midst of this global pandemic. But the health crisis will end one day, economies will start to reopen and trade will revive. At that point, it would help to have a well-functioning WTO that could help clean up the protectionist trade mess created by President Donald Trump and exacerbated by the pandemic.

So perhaps the most worrying thing about the WTO meeting’s cancellation is that some observers view it as a “blessing in disguise,” given the slim prospect that it would have led to progress on any of the items on the agenda. On a more hopeful note, though, there have been some positive signs that members can salvage the WTO’s dispute settlement system, despite the Trump administration’s concerted efforts to neuter the body that rules on appeals of the WTO’s initial findings.

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