The World Trade Organization (WTO) is struggling to maintain its relevance. Protectionism has been rising for more than a decade as a growing number of countries have openly flouted WTO rules. Many are having second thoughts about the wisdom of allowing China into the organization, where it retains special developing-economy rights that help shield its domestic economy from foreign competition. Recent trade agreements have been bilateral or regional, undermining the WTO’s purpose of maintaining a global trading order. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, impediments to trade are only expected to grow.
This sorry state of affairs in the global trading order is mirrored in the lack of progress in the only major global trade negotiations still actively underway—WTO talks intended to impose discipline on fisheries subsidies, which have led to depleted fish stocks in the world’s oceans. These talks have been going on for nearly two decades, have missed yet another deadline, and seem to be in limbo.
The obstacle standing in the way of a meaningful agreement is not just the reluctance of countries to give up subsidies. It also does not help that a deal requires unanimous approval of every clause and stipulation by all 164 WTO member countries—including landlocked ones without a marine fishing fleet, such as Hungary, Mongolia, and Mali. At the root of the fisheries problem, however, lies the WTO’s own preferred negotiating approach: As long as the WTO continues to approach trade using two different sets of rules—one for developed countries,