Future of WTO in turmoil

WTO director-general steps down while criticism of globalization continues to rise.


Jacqui Fatka, Feedstuffs 

May 21, 2020


At a virtual meeting of all World Trade Organization members on May 14, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevędo announced that he would step down on Aug. 31, cutting his second term short by exactly one year. The action looks to further complicate issues at WTO, especially as discussions heat up regarding the need to look more inwardly for food supplies.


Earlier in May, the European Union and 19 other WTO members officially notified the agency of their agreement to create a new and interim appeal court to resolve trade disputes among members. WTO's Appellate Body stopped functioning in December 2019. The announcement essentially isolates the U.S., which had blocked the selection of judges to the WTO Appellate Body and had not agreed to reform proposals. The members will now create a pool of 10 judges who could be called on to hear future appeals.


Azevędo began as director-general seven years ago and, under his watch, eliminated agricultural export subsidies and enabled more goods and services exports from least-developed countries. However, the need for WTO reform remains.


“We know that the WTO cannot stand frozen while the world around it changes profoundly,” he said in announcing his departure. “Ensuring that the WTO continues to be able to respond to members’ needs and priorities is an imperative, not an option. The ‘new normal’ that emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic will have to be reflected in our work here.”


Azevędo added, “The WTO may not be perfect, but it is indispensable all the same. It is what keeps us from a world where the law of the jungle prevails, at least as far as trade is concerned.”


That jungle is what may be coming.


Earlier this month, Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) introduced a joint resolution to withdraw the U.S. from WTO.


“We need to return production to America, secure critical supply chains and encourage domestic innovation. Pulling out of the WTO is a good first step," Hawley said.


Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that oversees trade matters, warned: