Trump’s Search for Absolute Sovereignty Could Destroy the WTO

Trump’s Search for Absolute Sovereignty Could Destroy the WTO
President Donald Trump at a meeting with Caribbean leaders at Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Fla., March 22, 2019 (AP photo by Carolyn Kaster).

The World Trade Organization's influence and capacity are diminishing. But the biggest threat it faces comes from its erstwhile champion, the United States under President Donald Trump, who is less interested in WTO reforms and more interested in bending the organization to his will.

The World Trade Organization is in crisis. Member states doubt its capacity to spur economic liberalization, counter China’s market-distorting policies or resolve deepening trade disputes. But the biggest threat it faces comes from its erstwhile champion, the United States. President Donald Trump is determined to weaken, even destroy, the organization. The White House speaks the language of reform, yet its ultimate objective is not to fix it but to nix it. The administration’s antipathy is rooted in the conviction that the WTO violates American sovereignty.

The president has made his instincts clear. “If they don’t shape up, I would withdraw from the WTO,” he warned last August. His national security adviser, John Bolton, is no fan, either. Writing in The Wall Street Journal in March 2017, a year before joining the administration, he recommended that Trump simply ignore any adverse judgments by the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanism. The United States may soon face that prospect, having clearly violated WTO rules by slapping trading partners with steel and aluminum tariffs on specious “national security” grounds.

Meanwhile, the administration has sought to paralyze the WTO’s judicial functions by blocking appointments to its Appellate Body, the ultimate arbiter of trade disputes. The body now has only three judges—down from its full complement of seven—the smallest number with which it can operate. On Dec. 11, the terms of two judges will expire. Unless they are replaced, the WTO’s already overburdened system for settling trade disputes, called the “dispute settlement understanding,” will come to a grinding halt. The administration is losing no sleep over this prospect. It regards the WTO as having gone off the rails, imposing new obligations on the United States without the latter’s sovereign consent.

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