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Upcoming trade meeting a chance for WTO to prove it’s still relevant

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There’s no turning back now. On June 12, trade ministers will meet in Geneva for a long-anticipated meeting, dubbed the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The point of the meeting, which had been delayed by COVID-19, is to chalk up some wins to show that the institution is still relevant in today’s global trading system. Wins wouldn’t have been easy in the best of times, but these aren’t those. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hangs like a dark cloud over MC12. The meeting will be fraught. Many predict failure.

The spin has already begun. Some of the wins once hoped for, like a deal on fisheries, are doubtful. Food security, which is on everyone’s mind given the war in Ukraine, is no more likely to yield tangible actions. Nor is the proposal to waive intellectual property on COVID-related vaccines, a gimmick that is more about theater than substance, and marks a serious step backwards for creative industries.

Is there a way forward?

The WTO’s director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, says that “What the world needs right now is a responsive WTO, one that helps us meet the many challenges of our time and delivers on the aspirations of the people we serve.” Amen. But how can MC12 possibly get this messaging right?

The word out of Geneva is that the meeting will be “streamlined, business-like,” whatever that means. Presumably the idea is to minimize pomp and circumstance so that members don’t have be photographed with Russia, if Russia shows up. But daily briefings on whether the various committees made progress won’t do the trick either. Okonjo-Iweala needs to use her bully pulpit to speak directly to “the aspirations of the people.”

Little about the meeting is shaping up to be about aspirations. Rather, the main topic of conversation will be suspending, or even expelling, Russia from the WTO. MC12 should have been postponed again because of the war in Ukraine, given that the institution lacks even the language to help members vent their anger at Moscow.

Okonjo-Iweala needs to frame an aspirational narrative around three points. First, neither COVID nor the war in Ukraine has undone the logic of free trade. There’s always political risk, as Adam Smith pointed out in “The Wealth of Nations.” A pandemic, like a war, can wreak havoc for supply chains. But the WTO can lessen this risk of “hold-up,” and is part of the answer, not the problem.

Second, populism, regardless of the clever name it’s given in capitol, is just protectionism, plain and simple. History is replete with claims that the logic of free trade falls flat against something newer and better. None of these claims has ever panned out. There’s good reason for that.

Third, even the current rage over so-called “friend-shoring,” which calls for supply chains to be reconfigured to favor allies over adversaries, can’t work without the WTO. There is simply not the time, political will or a realistic strategy for how to get these linkages rooted in preferential trade deals. If countries want to friend-shore, so be it. Yet, in critical materials and technologies, like in food and ideas, it will never be possible to trade only with allies. The WTO is the forum that preserves the rule of law in commerce with friends and foes alike.

Okonjo-Iweala should also call for a less business-streamlined meeting as soon as Russia is out of Ukraine. This, and a sense that the U.S., Europe and China are credibly committed to work together on WTO reform, is something she should demand from her bully pulpit.

Marc L. Busch is the Karl F. Landegger Professor of International Business Diplomacy at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @marclbusch.

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