Several key priorities should shape the multilateral trade agenda in the near term. They include the swift conclusion of a trade facilitation agreement, to address bottlenecks behind the border that impede business, and the pursuit of negotiations with a group of countries towards a broad agreement on services, which is an area of strong growth in the United States and around the world. The WTO should also more directly tackle emerging global challenges such as mitigating and adapting to climate change, improving global health outcomes, and optimizing the digital economy by aggressively pursuing trade-related solutions.


While such an approach would not address tariff barriers in a comprehensive fashion, it would demonstrate progress on issues that matter to businesses, workers and entire economies. There is great value in reducing the cost of shipping products around the world, modernizing rules to improve the electronic delivery of information across borders, and lowering barriers to fast-growing services trade. The Peterson Institute estimates that an ambitious agreement on trade facilitation measures alone could provide positive global GDP gains of hundreds of billions of dollars when fully implemented.
Progress on these issues will require a more flexible approach than countries have pursued for the past decade. Negotiators will have to work on a series of discrete issues through new processes that limit the ability of individual countries to thwart progress. 
Given the difficulty in obtaining unanimous agreement on how to proceed with trade liberalization, NFTC asked for some advice as to what can be accomplished legally under WTO rules by a coalition of countries. Ambassador Harbinson and Bart De Meester of Sidley Austin prepared a detailed analysis of coalition-based approaches to agreements that would be consistent with current trade rules. They indicate there is wide latitude for negotiating new commitments on market access and rules across goods, services and intellectual property disciplines and provide a useful road map for countries seeking to negotiate new deals.
The WTO is a valuable institution. It generally functions well as a body to enforce existing rules and settle disputes, and has been rightly credited for helping to stave off large-scale protectionism during the economic crisis. Its utility as a forum for trade negotiations has taken a hit in recent years, however, and member countries need to more firmly establish its place as the premier forum for opening markets and modernizing trade rules. It is time for countries to pursue new ideas and pathways for advancing an ambitious multilateral agenda that will support broad-based economic growth, development and jobs.

Colvin is vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council.