THE LIMITED BUT IMPORTANT ROLE OF THE
The World Trade Organization is in many ways similar to the
splitting of the atom. Both have great potential for productivity and
destruction. The limited role of the WTO is that it cannot save us
from us. The WTO cannot establish new values or agendas for future
trade officials. The scope and future of the WTO are limited by the
vision, imagination, courage, and conscience of the trade community.
The WTO’s goal and function are to remove tariff and nontariff
barriers and provide a mechanism for solving disputes between member states. However, the WTO has limits. Two of the forces forming
these limits are consensus and expertise. Consensus is still the watchword for the WTO. Consensus has had a positive impact on restraining
those who would turn the WTO into an economic sanctions-granting
version of the United Nations, and consensus keeps the membership
focused on the serious business of trade. Expertise and the recognition
of the limits of the areas of expertise is another limiting force on
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was also limited in
addressing many areas of the global economy or addressed them only
on a piecemeal basis. The old version of the GATT created limited,
a la carte agreements on government procurement and subsidies and
engaged only a limited number of parties. The WTO has improved
upon the GATT regime and now addresses agriculture, investment,
services, and intellectual property. Not bad for only 50 years of work.
The WTO is not like the old Ed Sullivan Show. It does not have
an act to please every audience. Since its inception, efforts have been
made to hijack the train of trade in the name of the environment,
Cato Journal, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Winter 2000). Copyright © Cato Institute. All rights reserved.
William H. Lash III is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law and
distinguished senior fellow of the Center for the Study of American...