Biden Administration Pledges Support for Trade Organization

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai outlined her vision for the beleaguered W.T.O. in a speech that was seen as the return of the United States to its leadership role.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, affirmed the Biden administration’s commitment to supporting the World Trade Organization in a speech in Geneva on Thursday but said further reforms were needed to restore the global trade body’s relevance to working people.

Ms. Tai addressed the organization’s shortcomings, criticizing some of its processes as “unwieldy and bureaucratic” and saying the international group had “rightfully been accused of existing in a ‘bubble,’ insulated from reality and slow to recognize global developments.”

But she said the United States was committed to strengthening the organization, which critics say the Trump administration had actively worked to undermine. And she argued that the W.T.O. had a crucial role to play in steering countries through the pandemic and confronting challenges like rising inequality and climate change.

“The reality of the institution today does not match the ambition of its goals,” said Ms. Tai, who spoke from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. However, she added, “We all recognize the importance of the W.T.O., and we all want it to succeed.”

The speech marked a putative return of the United States to its traditional leadership role at the beleaguered trade body, which functions based on consensus from its 164 member countries. It was the first time a United States trade representative had visited the W.T.O.’s offices in Geneva in half a decade.

It was also a personal return to Geneva for Ms. Tai, who litigated trade cases on behalf of the United States at the World Trade Organization earlier in her career.

Ms. Tai’s visit comes at a crucial moment for the global trade body, which is struggling to make headway on issues ranging from global vaccine distribution to rules for the fishing industry as it prepares for a major ministerial conference beginning Nov. 30.

The 25-year-old World Trade Organization was designed as a forum for trade negotiations as well as for settling trade disputes between its members. It also plays an important role in monitoring and publishing data about global trade. But under pressure from an expanding membership of countries, including nonmarket economies like China, it has struggled to produce new trade agreements and resolve disputes in a timely manner.

The Trump administration criticized the W.T.O. for its failure to police Chinese trade practices and its limits on how the United States protects its workers, among other issues. Many other member countries had accused the United States in recent years of abandoning its traditional role as one of the organization’s greatest supporters.

Jake Colvin, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents major multinational companies, said it was “fundamentally encouraging to hear Ambassador Tai reaffirm the continued commitment of the administration to the W.T.O.”

“That’s important and can’t be taken for granted,” he said. “I would agree with her, and the administration would agree with her, that the organization needs to show that it’s capable of addressing challenges and it’s not just trade for trade’s sake.”

Richard E. Baldwin, a professor of international economics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, posed questions to Ms. Tai after her speech. He was enthusiastic about the departure from the Trump administration’s harsh critiques. “I haven’t heard optimism and W.T.O. said in the same sentence in a long time,” he said.

In remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Thursday, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director general of the W.T.O., said that despite a bruising trade war, discussion of decoupling the United States and China, and pandemic-related shortages, global trade was actually at historic highs and the multilateral trading system continued to strongly benefit the global economy.

“To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of multilateral trade are greatly exaggerated,” she said. “Warnings of deglobalization are not matched by the evidence, not yet, at least.”

As the organization prepares for its meeting next month, W.T.O. members are divided over whether to grant a waiver that allows countries to bypass the intellectual property protections pharmaceutical companies have on their products to more quickly produce and distribute coronavirus vaccines to lower-income nations.

Backed by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, the Biden administration has stated its support for the waiver. But it continues to face criticism, both from supporters who say the administration isn’t doing enough to provide vaccine access to poorer countries, and from the business community, which worries about the long-run effects of the erosion of intellectual property rights.

On Thursday, Ms. Tai countered accusations of the administration’s “silence” on the issue by saying the United States was working actively behind the scenes. She compared the administration’s efforts to a duck sailing on a pond where “underneath the surface the duck’s legs are going very, very fast.”

Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said “there seems to be a will to find a compromise” that would allow developing countries to have access to vaccines without discouraging research and development. “That solution is within reach,” she said, adding that more than 100 developing countries were proponents of the waiver.

The World Trade Organization is also under pressure in the coming weeks to conclude a two-decades-long negotiation over curtailing harmful subsidies that countries give to their fishing industries.

The Biden administration has made a last-minute proposal to add provisions combating the use of forced labor on fishing boats, provisions that many countries say they support in principle but view as complicating the negotiations in the final hour.

Ms. Tai said the United States had made the forced labor proposal a way of bringing “trade policy back to thinking through the impacts on working people” as well as sustainability, and that the United States was hopeful to reach consensus on the issue.

Trade can be “a force for good that encourages a race to the top,” she said.

Ms. Tai also suggested that the United States was ready to engage on an intense disagreement over the organization’s system for settling disputes, but that further negotiations would be needed.

The W.T.O. appellate body, the final stop in the organization’s system for settling trade disputes, has been defunct since 2019, when the Trump administration refused to appoint new officials. That refusal protested a system that the White House said had long ceased to function as its designers intended.

Ms. Tai offered similar criticisms of the dispute settlement system, saying that the W.T.O. had become a forum for “prolonged, expensive and contentious” litigation, and that it was also having a chilling effect on finalizing new negotiations.

She cited as an example a standoff between the United States and Europe on subsidies given to aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus. It resulted in 16 years of litigation at the W.T.O. and was only resolved through outside talks in June.

But she distanced herself from the Trump administration’s more combative approach at the W.T.O., emphasizing that the United States was eager to engage and work toward solutions.

“If you will listen to us, we will listen to you, and let’s start the reform process from there,” she said.

Leave a Reply