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The Multilateral Trade Regime: Which Way Forward?

The report of the first Warwick Commission

Here you can read the Executive Summary and Recommendations of the report broken down by chapter however this should not be a substitute for the full report where the recommendations are discussed at length.

Executive Summary and Recommendations

This Report examines how the multilateral trade regime can better serve the global community.

It does so by asking if the sustained and uneven transformation of the global economy, with the associated rise of new powers, heightened aspirations, and considerable pockets of societal discontent, require a reconsideration of the principles and practices that currently guide the multilateral trade regime, the core of which is the World Trade Organization (WTO). Having considered this question, the Warwick Commission sees five challenges facing the multilateral trade regime – challenges that can be addressed more effectively than at present if the steps proposed here are taken. Our approach is guided as much by the practical realities of the contemporary trading regime as it is informed by analyses of long-term trends and national and regional circumstances.

We recognise – and indeed owe a debt to – prior reports on the multilateral trade regime.The Warwick Commission Report is entirely independent and its only institutional link is with the University of Warwick.We believe our Report offers fresh perspectives on the future trajectory of a critical element of global governance – the management of global trade relations. We do not claim originality for all our recommendations. Where we have not been original it is because we are convinced that some old ideas are badly in need of resurrection in the face of current challenges confronting the multilateral trade regime. Moreover, not all our recommendations carry equal weight in terms of their impact on the system, were they to be adopted.

Five challenges must be met if the multilateral trade regime is to succeed in the early 21st century. These challenges are distinct yet often related, and we do not seek to prioritise them. Taken together, they arise from several sources: national political dynamics, global economic developments and inter-state diplomacy. The five core challenges we identify are as follows:

  • The first challenge is to counter growing opposition to further multilateral trade liberalisation in industrialised countries. This tendency threatens to render further reciprocal opening of markets unduly limited and to weaken a valuable instrument of international economic cooperation.
  • That the bipolar global trade regime dominated primarily by the United States and Western Europe has given way to a multipolar alternative is now an established fact. The second challenge is to ensure that this evolving configuration does not lapse into longer term stalemate or worse, disengagement.
  • In this changing environment, the third challenge is to forge a broad-based agreement among the membership about the WTO’s objectives and functions, which in turn will effectively define the “boundaries” of the WTO.
  • The fourth challenge is to ensure that the WTO’s many agreements and procedures result in benefits for its weakest Members. This requires that the membership addresses the relationships between current trade rules and fairness, justice, and development.
  • The fifth challenge relates to the proliferation of preferential trading agreements and what steps can be taken to ensure that the considerable momentum behind these initiatives can be eventually channelled to advance the long-standing principles of non-discrimination and transparency in international commerce.

An integrated, comprehensive and systemic response is called for; key elements of which are discussed in the Report. A recurring theme in a number of our recommendations is the need for stakeholders in the trading system to permit themselves the time and space to take a step back from negotiating, litigating and running the daily business of trade policy in order to reflect on how they would like to see the trade regime evolve over the next few years. An inter-governmental ‘reflection exercise’ of this nature would seek to identify diverse needs and common interests, and to inject greater legitimacy, order and dynamism into the multilateral trade regime. Reflection and dynamism are not contradictory terms. An inter-governmental reflection exercise, we believe, would be best instigated sooner rather than later.

A brief account follows of the contents of each chapter of this Report, together with the recommendations contained therein. This brief summary cannot, of course, substitute for the nuanced and more detailed reasoning in the Report. In laying out the contents and conclusions of the Report, the Commission also acknowledges that a Report of this nature cannot aspire to completeness. We have selected a range of issues we consider important, but we are acutely aware of many other issues in need of attention, related to trade but always with wider socio-political and economic ramifications. It is our hope that a reflection exercise of the kind we propose would be able to address some of these issues along with the ones we identify.

Chapter Summaries

For a full hard copy of the report you can email denise.hewlett@warwick.ac.uk