Restoring order to global trade

October 27, 2020

The established order of things in international trade, the world we have been comfortable with for decades, has been shattered. This is often laid at Donald Trump’s door, given his disdain for the World Trade Organization (WTO) and relish for unilateral actions like tariff surcharges. In reality, the global trading system was in trouble before Trump’s arrival on the scene. He and Robert Lighthizer, his spear-carrier as U.S. Trade Representative, have just been the instruments of disruption, bringing all of the inadequacies and shortcomings of the WTO system to the forefront.

Before Trump was elected, I believed that, whatever its shortcomings, the key legal principles and multilaterally respected norms governing the global trading system in the WTO Agreement would endure. These generally accepted rules, forsaking unilateral measures by governments, would continue to advance global trade and provide stability that business could count on. Or so I thought. But the Trump presidency has upset my predictions. Even if the Trump era were to end next week, a restoration of the old order and its orthodoxy seems highly unlikely.