Delegates pose for a family photo during the 13th WTO ministerial conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 26, 2024.

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The WTO Ministerial Conference opens amid uncertainty about the future of the world trading system


Photo Credit: REUTERS/Abdel Hadi Ramahi/File Photo


The World Trade Organization's Ministerial Conference opened on February 26 by welcoming two new members, Timor-Leste (East Timor) and Comoros, a small island nation off the East African coast that used to be a French colony. This seemingly small step by the WTO is significant in that it reflects the implicit recommitment of WTO members to the importance they ascribe to open global trade under an agreed system of rules.1

Deciding whether those rules are to be amended will be an important agenda item at the conference, which is taking place in Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates. This blog post is written in Abu Dhabi as the conference opens. Among the urgent issues to be faced are limits on fisheries subsidies, whether custom duties apply to ecommerce, improving food security for impoverished nations, and the all-important resolution of the dispute settlement process that has paralyzed the organization for the last few years.

The WTO's full membership already represents 98 percent of world trade. Adding two more countries that each hardly account for the population2 of a modest city anywhere amounts to no more than rounding the number for the WTO's coverage of world trade. But the WTO membership's applause and welcoming statements seemed sincere, even if the degree to which existing members will invest in international cooperation this week is yet to be demonstrated.

The two accessions will not make the difference as to whether the ministerial meeting is viewed as a success or failure. The key substantive matters that hang in the balance are:

  • Preventing overfishing by curbing fisheries subsidies. Many of the world's fish stocks are being depleted. The primary culprit consists of large countries subsidizing long distance fishing fleets. The negative impact on the livelihoods of workers in the fishing industries in poor coastal countries' is dramatic. Agreement was reached two years ago on some but not all provisions of a treaty on this subject. Even the first part of the treaty (for example, not to subsidize illegal fishing) has not been ratified by enough countries to put it into effect. As for reaching agreement on the rest of the subsidies to be limited (such as fuel subsidies), that may depend on giving in to a demand by India that local fishing be exempt from discipline for 25 years, a period deemed by many to be excessively long.
  • Applying customs duties to ecommerce. A moratorium on applying tariffs on ecommerce has been renewed for successive two-year periods since 1998. Some say renewal does not matter because those countries that choose to apply tariffs will largely suffer the consequences, cutting themselves off from a new means to enable the future growth of their own economies. But we all pay a price for increased tariffs. Digital trade is an important part of future world economic growth. The purpose of the WTO is not carving out policy space—preserving the freedom of countries to find new ways to limit international exchange. The organization's purpose is to maintain open trade under agreed rules.
  • Are agreements that serve the purposes of the WTO to be blocked by non-participants? The WTO works on the basis of consensus. The ability to modernize the rules governing trade has often been stymied by any member who withholds its consent unreasonably to take an agreement hostage to gain leverage for its other negotiating objectives. Most members now want to add to the WTO a new agreement on facilitating investment for the sake of economic development. It is a test case. If the trading system is to be responsive to the current needs of the world trading system, those countries that are able and willing to move ahead with plurilateral agreements (those signed by less than all the membership) must no longer be required to first have the consent of the whole membership of 166 countries. The future of the WTO may depend on the outcome.
  • Can food security for the poorest be improved and other hard issues for agricultural trade finally be addressed? Climate change and extreme weather events make getting food from places of robust production to places of need increasingly more urgent. One of the most glaring deficiencies in the global trade rulebook is that countries are largely free to limit food exports. At the Ministerial Conference two years ago, it was agreed that, after taking care of domestic needs, purchases by the World Food Program would be exempt from export restrictions. It is time to go further. Food purchases by the least developed (and perhaps other net food importing developing countries) should be exempted from export restrictions. In addition, a work program for agricultural trade, promised when the WTO was founded in 1995, should finally be put into place to address market access (where tariffs on agriculture are twice as high as other tariffs), disciplines on food subsidies, and settling thorny issues of food security more broadly.
  • Are trade disputes to be settled? For international trade to move smoothly, there must be a way to settle disputes. A fundamental element in the founding of the WTO was that trade disputes would come to a binding conclusion when adjudicated. The system that existed until 2019 had deficiencies—it took too long, it was unable to reach all forms of injurious trade-distorting conduct, and, in the view of more than a few members, the adjudicators began to engage in rulemaking. Because of these failings of the existing system, the United States blocked the appointment of new members to the WTO Appellate Body. Some members then began engaging in fraud by filing an appeal to a body that has not been in existence for five years and probably is not coming back. Some others simply created an alternative dispute settlement system that provides some elements of reform but not enough to restore the system. This issue will not be settled at this ministerial. The only question is whether a credible process will be put into place to reach agreement on a solution acceptable to all members by year end 2024, as all members pledged to do at the last ministerial meeting.

For future progress on remaining problems that seriously affect world trade, the ministers should establish goals and a timetable for meeting them. Areas which cry out for progress include beginning deliberations on agriculture, addressing measures to combat climate change (such as carbon taxes), improving the environment (e.g., to address plastics pollution), and dealing with challenges to world health and the emerging issue of industrial policy, including to increase the flexibilities sought by developing countries for industrialization.

For this conference to be a success, trade ministers must demonstrate that they can come to grips with many of the serious problems that exist that world trade must address, not just say that they will do so at some future time. Not enough has been agreed by their officials in advance of this meeting to simply ratify what they have done. The ministers have a very few days in which to demonstrate their governments' commitment to making the trading system work.


1. This is the fifth ministerial conference that I have attended—previously as a nongovernmental organization participant at the ministerial meetings held in Hong Kong, Cancun, and Seattle, and as a WTO official at Buenos Aires in 2017. My assignment in Abu Dhabi is to participate in two book events, one to introduce an essay I wrote on the degree to which trade has served the cause of peace in the post WWII period, and the other to present to conference attendees a book I wrote at PIIE introducing readers to the WTO and the prospects for reform of the organization (Revitalizing the Global Trading System (Cambridge University Press, 2023)). In addition, I sought to get a sense from officials as to what is at stake here this week.

2. Share of the 8.1 billion persons on the planet: 0.02 percent, Timor Leste; 0.01 percent, Comoros.

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This publication does not include a replication package.

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