The WTO Ministerial is a chance to advance global commerce for good

While the ongoing pandemic has tempered expectations for the upcoming World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference on Tuesday, officials have an opportunity to set a meaningful agenda that advances global commerce for good. 

Concrete deliverables will be difficult to achieve, particularly for issues that require the agreement of all 164 members like a deal to curb harmful fisheries subsidies. Even unanimous agreement to extend the customs duty moratorium on electronic transmissions is fraught, despite the critical role it has played to support an open internet free from tariffs, red tape and surveillance. 

Still, trade ministers will likely be able to tout successes in Geneva, including an important outcome on domestic services regulations, key progress on e-commerce discussions and potentially, lessons learned from the pandemic for trade and health. 

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Beyond these texts, ministers have a real opportunity to utilize the conference to position the WTO as a flexible forum for addressing shared global priorities important to businesses, workers and governments.

American businesses and workers would benefit from paths forward on supply chains, health, climate, e-commerce, gender and WTO reform.

Ministers can chart a course forward on trade and health, in cooperation with other international organizations, that prioritizes practical solutions to shared challenges around transparency, trade facilitation and pandemic preparedness separate from often-theological debates around Intellectual Property.

Similarly, the WTO can signal that the world should look at trade as a tool to meet the climate commitments made by leaders at COP26, including by lowering the cost of adopting clean technologies and ensuring that carbon border adjustment mechanisms do not result in destructive trade wars.

More broadly, the ministerial could signal a commitment by trade ministers to prioritize future work to create more resilient and secure global supply chains, including by empowering the Secretariat to advance a new work program.

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E-commerce negotiators could signal a roadmap to enhance the ability of small businesses to utilize digital tools, including by launching services market access talks and intensifying work to achieve commercially-meaningful outcomes on digital trade and trade facilitation rules. 

Ministers could also commit to deepening engagement on trade and gender issues, including by directing the WTO secretariat to analyze trade policy commitments through a gender lens and supporting increased capacity building to enable the participation of women entrepreneurs in the global economy.

The WTO continues to provide a critical baseline value to the global economy as a multilateral umbrella for market access commitments, standards frameworks, research, reporting, transparency and dispute settlement mechanisms. Companies, workers and governments benefit from the global certainty that the WTO administers. 

Many of the paths forward, however, will have to be tread by those members who are committed to pursuing practical solutions and high-standard outcomes.  

United States Trade Representative Katherine TaiKatherine TaiVilsack accuses China of breaking commitments in Trump-era trade deal US and UK start formal talks over Trump's steel, aluminum tariffs Equilibrium/Sustainability — What's next for winter highway travel? MORE told reporters recently that the Biden administration would bring their “best game” to the conference table.   

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U.S. leadership will be particularly critical to creating a pathway to reform the dispute settlement system, which is one area that would benefit from multilateral consensus. Recently, the National Foreign Trade Council, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and others called on the administration to offer concrete proposals to address longstanding process and appellate body overreach concerns and improve confidence in the system.

Other countries must also step up to lead. Australia, Costa Rica, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore and others put significant efforts into elevating the importance of e-commerce for small businesses and development in advance of the 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, which laid the groundwork for the digital trade negotiations currently underway. At MC12, a range of countries can show leadership to create paths forward on health, climate, inclusive trade and other shared priorities. 

It is also worth considering whether holding a ministerial every two (or so) years is the right framework, given the paralysis that tends to characterize the intervening periods. One deliverable from this ministerial could be a commitment to hold another in 2023 with an eye towards making incremental progress on shared priorities.

During the pandemic, the WTO showed its worth as a practical forum to discuss lessons learned from the pandemic for trade and health, supply chain bottlenecks, and the importance of trade facilitation and digital trade to the resilience of businesses and workers. 

The ministerial can build on this progress by signaling a path forward for the organization based on flexibility and a focus on advancing trade for good.

Jake Colvin is president of the National Foreign Trade Council