The next head of the World Trade Organization faces an uphill struggle. As candidates line up to replace Roberto Azevêdo, the multilateral trade body is confronting a fundamental difficulty: the impulse towards liberalisation has faded across much of the world. Concerns about globalisation, whether economic, environmental or security-based, have risen and countries are retreating from openness over trade. Mutual mistrust between China and the US, as well as the EU and China, means that any further liberalising of trade is likely to be between regional blocs and coalitions of the willing rather than all members.
Yet this context makes the WTO even more vital. In a time of heightened tensions the world needs rules to fall back on and a trusted referee to resolve disputes. Plurilateral and bilateral agreements affect those not party to their negotiations and the WTO provides protection. Individual governments and trading blocs are exploring how to regulate international trade in services and data, including agreeing rules with each other. However a consensus on minimum standards and fair treatment is reached, even if agreements are not made in Geneva where the WTO is based, it should be incorporated into the organisation’s rules.
With so many challenges facing the international trading system it would be a mistake not to use the tools and bodies there to help solve them: an international forum on trade was hard-won and would be difficult to recreate. The coronavirus crisis demonstrates the value of common agreements on how to deal fairly with one