Trading in the Twenty-First Century: Is There a Role for the World Trade Organization?

As the World Trade Organization begins its third decade, its future is less certain than at any point in its history. While there is no move to dismantle the organization, the initial expectation that the WTO would be the fulcrum for future international trade agreements has not been met. At best, we can say that its tenure has had mixed results. On one hand, the organization continues to be an adjudication focal point, with nations using panel processes when there is contestation over rule interpretation. But more problematic given the function of the organization, the legislative arm of the WTO is moribund. If we were to compare the first two decades of the WTO with that of its predecessor organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the WTO would appear lackluster. This essay examines the scholarly literature on the trade regime and argues that this pessimism may be misplaced.