World Trade Organization: Overview and Future Direction

World Trade Organization:
August 21, 2020
Overview and Future Direction
Cathleen D. Cimino-Isaacs,
Historically, the United States’ leadership of the global trading system has ensured the United
States a seat at the table to shape the international trade agenda in ways that both advance and
Analyst in International
defend U.S. interests. The evolution of U.S. leadership and the global trading system remain of
Trade and Finance
interest to Congress, which holds constitutional authority over foreig n commerce and establishes

general and principal U.S. trade negotiating objectives through legislation. Congress has
Rachel F. Fefer
recognized the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the “foundation of the global
Analyst in International
trading system” within trade promotion authority (TPA) and plays a direct legislative and
Trade and Finance
oversight role over WTO agreements. The statutory basis for U.S. WTO membership is the

Uruguay Round Agreements Act (P.L. 103-465), and U.S. priorities and objectives for the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)/WTO have been reflected in various TPA
Ian F. Fergusson
legislation since 1974. Congress also has oversight of the U.S. Trade Representative and other
Specialist in International
agencies that participate in WTO meetings and enforce WTO commitments.
Trade and Finance

The WTO is a 164-member international organization that was created to oversee and administer

multilateral trade rules, serve as a forum for trade liberalization negotiations, and resolve trade
disputes. The United States was a major force behind the establishment of the WTO in 1995, and the rules and agreements
resulting from multilateral trade negotiations since 1947. The WTO encompassed and succeeded the GATT, established in
1947 among the United States and 22 other countries. Through the GATT and WTO, the United States, with other countries,
sought to establish a more open, rules -based trading system in the postwar era, with the goal of fostering international
economic cooperation and raising economic prosperity worldwide. Today, 98% of global trade is among WTO members.
The WTO is a consensus and member-driven organization. Its core principles include nondiscrimination (most-favored
nation treatment and national treatment), freer trade, fair competition, transparency, and encouraging development. These are
enshrined in WTO agreements covering goods, agriculture, services, intellectual property rights, and trade facilitation, among
other issues. Many countries have been motivated to join the WTO not just to expand access to foreign markets but also to
spur domestic economic reforms, transition to market economies, and promote the rule of law.
The WTO dispute settlement (DS) mechanism provides an enforceable means for members to resolve disputes over WTO
commitments and obligations. The WTO has processed nearly 600 disputes, and the United States has been an active user of
the system. Supporters of the multilateral trading system consider the DS mechanism an important success, and an
enforceable DS process was a priority negotiating objective for the United States in the Uruguay Round negotiations during
1986-1994. More recently, some members, most notably the United States, contend it has procedural shortcomings and has
exceeded its mandate in deciding certain cases. Because of this, the United States has vetoed the appointment of panelists to
the WTO’s Appellate Body (AB; the seven-member body that reviews appeals by WTO members of a panel’s findings in a
dispute case). In December 2019, the terms of two of the remaining jurists expired, leaving the AB unable to function and
hear new cases. This action could potentially render the DS system ineffective, as members struggle to agree to solutions that
sufficiently address U.S. concerns.
More broadly, many observers are concerned that the WTO’s effectiveness has diminished since the collapse of the Doha
Round of multilateral trade negotiations, which began in 2001, and believe the WTO needs to negotiate new rules and adopt
reforms to continue its role as the foundation of the trading system. To date, members have been unable to reach consensus
for a new comprehensive agreement on trade liberalization and rules. While global supply chains and technology have
transformed global trade and investment, WTO rules have not kept up with the pace of change. Many countries have turned
to negotiating free trade agreements outside the WTO and plurilateral agreements involving subsets of WTO members.
In early 2020, the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) was rescheduled to 2021 due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019
(COVID-19) pandemic. The biennial meeting, which usually involves active U.S. participation, was widely anticipated as an
action-forcing event for the WTO. At the previous ministerial in December 2017, no major deliverables were announced,
leaving the stakes high for MC12. Several members committed to make progress on issues related to ongoing talks, such as
fisheries subsidies and e-commerce, while other areas remain stalled amid disagreements.
Congressional Research Service

World Trade Organization: Overview and Future Direction

In its June 2020 forecast, the WTO estimated a plunge in global trade growth for 2020, with recovery depending on the
duration of the pandemic and countries’ policy choices. The WTO has committed to work with other international
organizations to minimize disruptions to trade and global supply chains, and encouraged WTO members to notify trade
measures taken in response to COVID-19, which have surged since the beginning of 2020, causing concern for many. Some
members have called on the WTO to address the trade policy challenges emerging from COVID-19 through new rules.
Meanwhile, WTO members continue to explore aspects of reform and future negotiations. Potential reforms concern the
administration of the organization, its procedures and practices, and attempts to address the inability of WTO members to
conclude new agreements. Proposed reforms to dispute settlement also attempt to improve the working of the DS system,
particularly the AB, which U.S. trade officials to date have not supported.
Some U.S. government frustrations with the WTO are not new and many are shared by other trading partners. At the same
time, the Trump Administration’s overall approach has spurred questions among stakeholders and some Members of
Congress regarding future U.S. leadership and priorities for improving the trading system. Some concerns have emphasized
that the Administration’s actions to unilaterally raise tariffs under U.S. trade laws and to impede the functioning of the DS
system might undermine the WTO’s credibility.
The growing debate over the role and future direction of the WTO are of interest to Congress. Some Members have expressed
support for WTO reform efforts and U.S. leadership; while others introduced joint resolutions in May 2020 to withdraw
congressional approval of WTO agreements. Issues Congress may address include the effects of current and future WTO
agreements on the U.S. economy, the value of U.S. membership and leadership in the WTO, the possibility of establishing
new U.S. negotiating objectives or oversight hearings on the prospects for future WTO reforms and rulemaking, and the
relevant U.S. trade authorities and impact of potential U.S. withdrawal from the WTO on U.S. economic and foreign policy
interests. The pending WTO Ministerial Conference in 2021 presents the United States and WTO members with an
opportunity to address pressing concerns over reform efforts, ongoing and new negotiations, a nonfunctioning DS system,
and the future of the multilateral trading system more broadly, as members grapple with economic recovery from COVID-19
and other challenges.

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Introduction ................................................................................................................... 1
Background.................................................................................................................... 3
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) ........................................................... 3
World Trade Organization ........................................................................................... 6
Administering Trade Rules .................................................................................... 6
Establishing New Rules and Trade Liberalization through Negotiations ........................ 9
Resolving Disputes ............................................................................................. 10
The United States and the WTO ................................................................................. 11
WTO Agreements ......................................................................................................... 12
Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization................................... 12
Multilateral Agreement on Trade in Goods (Annex 1A) ................................................. 12
Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) .......................................................................... 13
Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS) ........................................................ 14
General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) (Annex 1B) ........................................ 15
Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intel ectual Property Rights (TRIPS) (Annex
1C) ..................................................................................................................... 16
Trade Remedies....................................................................................................... 17
Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU) (Annex 2)..................................................... 18
Trade Policy Review Mechanism (Annex 3) ................................................................ 22
Plurilateral Agreements (Annex 4) ............................................................................. 23
Government Procurement Agreement .................................................................... 23
Information Technology Agreement ...................................................................... 24
Trade Facilitation Agreement..................................................................................... 24
Key Exceptions under GATT/WTO ............................................................................ 25
Joining the WTO: The Accession Process ......................................................................... 26
China’s Accession and Membership ........................................................................... 27
Current Status and Ongoing Negotiations ......................................................................... 31
Buenos Aires Ministerial MC11, 2017 ........................................................................ 31
Outlook for MC12, 2021 .......................................................................................... 33
Selected Ongoing WTO Negotiations ......................................................................... 33

Agriculture ........................................................................................................ 33
Fisheries Subsidies ............................................................................................. 34
Electronic Commerce/Digital Trade ...................................................................... 35
Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) ............................................................... 36
Policy Issues and Future Direction ................................................................................... 37
COVID-19 and WTO Reactions................................................................................. 39
Negotiating Approaches............................................................................................ 41
Plurilateral Agreements ....................................................................................... 41
Preferential Free Trade Agreements....................................................................... 42
Future Negotiations on Selected Issues ....................................................................... 44
Services ............................................................................................................ 45
Competition with SOEs and Non-Market Practices .................................................. 45
Investment ........................................................................................................ 46
Labor and Environment ....................................................................................... 47
Proposed Institutional Reforms .................................................................................. 48
Institutional Issues.............................................................................................. 49
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Dispute Settlement ............................................................................................. 53
Selected Chal enges and Issues for Congress ............................................................... 59
Value of the Multilateral System and U.S. Leadership and Membership ...................... 59
Respect for the Rules and Credibility of the WTO ................................................... 60
U.S. Sovereignty and the WTO............................................................................. 61
Role of Emerging Markets ................................................................................... 62
Priorities for WTO Reforms and Future Negotiations ............................................... 63
Outlook.................................................................................................................. 64

Figure 1. WTO Structure .................................................................................................. 8
Figure 2. Uruguay Round Impact on Tariff Bindings............................................................. 8
Figure 3. Average Applied Most-Favored Nation (MFN) Tariffs ............................................. 9
Figure 4. Four Modes of Service Delivery and Hypothetical Examples .................................. 16
Figure 5. WTO Dispute Settlement Procedure ................................................................... 19
Figure 6. WTO Disputes Involving the United States .......................................................... 20
Figure 7. WTO Accession Process ................................................................................... 27
Figure 8. U.S. Trade in the WTO ..................................................................................... 43

Table 1. Summary of GATT Negotiating Rounds ................................................................. 4
Table 2. Marrakesh Protocol to the GATT 1994 ................................................................. 13
Table 3. WTO Chal enges to Tariff Measures Imposed by Trump Administration Under
U.S. Trade Laws......................................................................................................... 21
Table 4. WTO DG Candidates ......................................................................................... 39

Author Information ....................................................................................................... 64

Congressional Research Service

World Trade Organization: Overview and Future Direction

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an international organization that administers the trade
rules and agreements negotiated by its 164 members to eliminate trade barriers and create
transparent and nondiscriminatory rules to govern trade. It also serves as an important forum for
resolving trade disputes. The United States was a major force behind the establishment of the
WTO in 1995 and the rules and agreements that resulted from the Uruguay Round of multilateral
trade negotiations (1986-1994). The WTO encompassed and expanded on the commitments and
institutional functions of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), established in
1947 by the United States and 22 other countries. Through the GATT and the WTO, the United
States and others sought to establish a more open, rules-based trading system in the postwar era,
with the goal of fostering international economic cooperation, stability, and prosperity worldwide.
Today, the vast majority of world trade, 98%, takes place among WTO members.
The evolution of U.S. leadership in the WTO and the institution’s future agenda have been of
interest to Congress. The terms set by the WTO agreements govern the majority of U.S. trading
relationships. Some 65% of U.S. global trade is with countries that do not have free trade
agreements (FTAs) with the United States, including China, the European Union (EU), India, and
Japan, and thus, the majority of U.S. trade relies primarily on the terms of WTO agreements.
Congress has recognized the WTO as the “foundation of the global trading system” within U.S.
trade legislation and plays a direct legislative and oversight role over WTO agreements.1 U.S.
FTAs also build on core WTO agreements. While the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)
represents the United States at the WTO, Congress holds constitutional authority over foreign
commerce and establishes U.S. trade negotiating objectives and priorities and implements major
U.S. trade liberalization agreements through legislation. U.S. priorities and objectives for the
GATT/WTO are reflected in trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation since 1974. Congress
also has oversight of the USTR and other executive branch agencies that participate in WTO
meetings and enforce WTO commitments.
The WTO’s effectiveness as a negotiating body for broad-based trade liberalization has come
under intensified scrutiny, as has its role in resolving trade disputes. WTO members have
struggled to reach consensus over issues that can place developed country members against
developing country members (such as agricultural subsidies, industrial goods tariffs, and
intel ectual property rights protection). The institution has also struggled to address newer trade
barriers, such as digital trade restrictions and the role of state-owned enterprises in international
commerce, which have become more prominent in the years since the WTO was established.
Global supply chains and advances in technology have transformed global commerce, but trade
rules have failed to keep up with the pace of change; since 1995, WTO members have been
unable to reach consensus for a new comprehensive multilateral agreement. As a result, many
have turned to negotiating FTAs with one another outside the WTO to build on core WTO
agreements and advance trade liberalization and rules; in some of these bilateral and regional
agreements, including those pursued by the United States and EU, certain newer rules may vary
significantly. Plurilateral negotiations, involving subsets of WTO members rather than al
members, are also becoming a popular forum for tackling newer issues on the trade agenda.
The most recent round of WTO negotiations, the Doha Round, began in November 2001, but
concluded with no clear path forward, leaving several unresolved issues after the 10th Ministerial
Conference in 2015. Efforts to build on current WTO agreements outside of the Doha agenda

1 Section 102(b)(13) of the Bipartisan Congressional T rade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (T itle I, P.L. 114-
26), which reauthorized trade promotion authority (TPA).
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World Trade Organization: Overview and Future Direction

continue. While WTO members have made some progress, no major deliverables were announced
at the last Ministerial in 2017. The stakes appear high for the next meeting, which members were
forced to reschedule from 2020 to 2021 due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
pandemic. COVID-19 has tested cooperation and coordination in global trade policies, disrupted
global supply chains, and resulted in widespread trade protectionism. At the same time, several
countries have reaffirmed the trading system, lifted restrictions, and view the WTO as playing an
important role in tackling trade policy chal enges that have emerged from the pandemic.
Concerns about growing protectionist trade policies predate COVID-19. Observers remain
concerned that recent U.S. tariff actions and counterretaliation, and escalating trade disputes
between major economies, most notably the United States and China, may further strain the
trading system. The WTO is faced with resolving significant pending disputes, which involve the
United States, as wel as debate about the role of its Appel ate Body.
In a break from the approaches of past Administrations, the Trump Administration has expressed
doubt over the value of the WTO institution to the U.S. economy and questioned whether
leadership in the organization benefits the United States. While USTR Robert Lighthizer
maintains that the WTO is an “important institution” that does an “enormous amount of good,”
U.S. officials have expressed skepticism toward multilateral trade deals, including those
negotiated within the WTO.2 President Trump has at times threatened to withdraw the United
States from the WTO.3 He claims that the WTO “needs drastic change,” and criticizes China as
declining to adopt promised reforms following WTO accession.4 In addition, amid concerns about
“judicial overreach” in WTO dispute findings, the Administration has withheld approval for judge
appointments to the WTO Appel ate Body—a practice that occurred under the Obama
Administration and concerns some Members of Congress.
At the same time, reform of the multilateral trading system is a stated trade policy objective of the
Trump Administration, and the United States remains engaged in certain WTO initiatives and
plurilateral efforts.5 In testimony before Congress in June 2020, USTR Lighthizer emphasized
primary U.S. concerns include that other WTO members resort more often to litigation, rather
than negotiations to craft new rules, maintain “outdated” high tariffs, and skirt WTO obligations
through flexibilities.6 The United States seeks a “broad reset” at the WTO, with across-the-board
reforms.7 While many of U.S. fundamental concerns predate the Trump Administration and are
shared by other trading partners, questions remain about U.S. priorities for improving the system.
With growing debate over the role and future direction of the WTO, Congress may maintain
interest in several issues, including: the value of U.S. membership and leadership in the WTO, the
possibility of establishing new U.S. negotiating objectives or holding oversight hearings to
address prospects of new WTO reforms and rulemaking, and the relevant U.S. trade authorities
and impact of potential WTO withdrawal on U.S. economic and foreign policy interests.

2 UST R, “ Opening Plenary Statement of UST R Robert Lighthizer at the WT O Ministerial Conference,” Press Release,
December 11, 2017.
3 John Micklethwait, Margaret T alev, and Jennifer Jacobs, “T rump T hreatens to Pull U.S. Out of WT O If It Doesn’t
‘Shape Up’,” Bloomberg News, August 30, 2018.
4 White House, “Remarks by President T rump to the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly,” September
25, 2019, -trump-74th-session-united-nations-
5 UST R, 2018 Trade Policy Agenda, March 2018.
6 House Ways and Means Committee, Hearing on the President’s 2020 Trade Policy Agenda, written testimony by
Ambassador Robert E. Lighthizer, June 17, 2020.
7 Also, see Robert E. Lighthizer, “ How to Set World T rade Straight ,” Wall Street Journal op-ed, August 20, 2020.
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World Trade Organization: Overview and Future Direction

This report provides background history of the WTO, its organization, and current status of
negotiations and reform efforts. The report also explores concerns some have regarding the
WTO’s future direction and key policy issues for Congress.
Following World War II, countries throughout the world, led by the United States and several
other developed countries, sought to establish a more transparent and nondiscriminatory trading
system with the goal of raising the economic wel -being of al countries. Aware of the role of tit-
for-tat trade barriers resulting from the U.S. Smoot-Hawley tariffs in exacerbating the economic
depression in the 1930s, including severe drops in world trade, global production, and
employment, the countries that met to discuss the new trading system considered more open trade
as essential for peace and economic stability.8
The intent of these negotiators was to establish an International Trade Organization (ITO) to
address not only trade barriers but other issues indirectly related to trade, including employment,
investment, restrictive business practices, and commodity agreements. Unable to secure approval
for such a comprehensive agreement, however, they reached a provisional agreement on tariffs
and trade rules, known as the GATT, which went into effect in 1948.9 This provisional agreement,
subject to several rounds of trade liberalization negotiations, became the principal set of rules
governing international trade for the next 47 years, until the establishment of the WTO.
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)
The GATT was neither a formal treaty nor an international organization, but an agreement
between governments, to which they were contracting parties. The GATT parties established a
secretariat based in Geneva, but it remained relatively smal , especial y compared to the staffs of
international economic institutions created by the postwar Bretton Woods conference—the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Based on a mission to promote trade liberalization,
the GATT became the principal set of rules and disciplines governing international trade.
The core principles and articles of the GATT
GATT/WTO Principles
(which were carried over to the WTO)
of Nondiscrimination
committed the original 23 members, including
Most-favored nation (MFN) treatment (also
the United States, to lower tariffs on a range of
cal ed normal trade relations by the United States).
Requires each member country to grant each other
industrial goods and to apply tariffs in a
member country treatment at least as favorable as it
nondiscriminatory manner—the so-cal ed
grants to its most-favored trade partner.
most-favored nation or MFN principle (see text
National treatment. Obligates each country not to
box). By having to extend the same benefits
discriminate between domestic and foreign products;
and concessions to members, the economic
once an imported product has entered a country, the
gains from trade liberalization were magnified.
product must be treated no less favorably than a
“like” product produced domestical y.
Exceptions to the MFN principle were al owed,
however, including for preferential trade
agreements outside the GATT/WTO covering “substantial y” al trade among members and for

8 Barry Eichengreen and Douglas A. Irwin, “T he Slide to Protectionism in the Great Depression: Who Succumbed and
Why?” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 70, no. 4 (December 2010), pp. 871-897.
9 One major reason the IT O lost momentum was the U.S. government’s announcement in 1950 that it would no longer
seek congressional ratification of the IT O Charter, due to opposition in the U.S. Congress. WT O, “T he GAT T years:
from Havana to Marrakesh,”
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nonreciprocal preferences for developing countries.10 GATT members also agreed to provide
“national treatment” for imports from other members. For example, countries could not establish
one set of health and safety regulations on domestic products while imposing more stringent
regulations on imports.
Although the GATT mechanism for the enforcement of these rules or principles was general y
viewed as largely ineffective, the agreement nonetheless brought about a substantial reduction of
tariffs and other trade barriers.11 The eight “negotiating rounds” of the GATT succeeded in
reducing average tariffs on industrial products from between 20%-30% to just below 4%, and
later establishing agreements to address certain non-tariff barriers, facilitating a 14-fold increase
in world trade over its 47-year history (see Table 1).12 When the first round concluded in 1947, 23
countries had participated, which accounted for a majority of global trade at the time. When the
Uruguay Round establishing the WTO concluded in 1994, 123 countries had participated and the
amount of trade affected was nearly $3.7 tril ion. As of the end of 2018, there are 164 WTO
members, and trade flows totaled $22.6 tril ion in 2017.13
Table 1. Summary of GATT Negotiating Rounds
(Year: Location)
Countries (#)
1947: Geneva, Switzerland
 GATT established
 Tariff reduction of about 20% negotiated
1949: Annecy, France
 Accession of 11 new contracting parties
 Tariff reduction of about 2%
1950-51: Torquay, UK
 Accession of 7 new contracting parties
 Tariff reduction of about 3%
1955-56: Geneva
 Tariff reduction of about 2.5%
1960-61: Geneva (Dillon)
 Tariff reduction of about 4% and negotiations
involving the external tariff of the European
1964-67: Geneva (Kennedy)
 Tariff reduction of about 35%
 Negotiation of antidumping measures
1973-79: Geneva (Tokyo)
 Tariff reduction of about 33%
 Several nontariff barrier codes negotiated,
including subsidies, customs valuation, standards,
and government procurement
1986-1994: Geneva (Uruguay)
 WTO created a new dispute settlement system
 Liberalization of agriculture, textiles, and apparel
 Rules adopted in new areas such as services, trade-
related investment, and intel ectual property
Sources: Douglas A. Irwin, Free Trade Under Fire, p. 225, and Stephen D. Cohen et al., Fundamentals of U.S.
Foreign Trade Policy
, p. 185.

10 GAT T Article XXIV. For more information see CRS Report R45198, U.S. and Global Trade Agreements: Issues for
, by Brock R. Williams.
11 For more detail on perceived shortcomings of GAT T dispute settlement, see “Historic development of the WT O
dispute settlement system,”
12 WT O, World Trade Report 2007, pp. 201-209.
13 WT O, World Trade Statistical Review 2018,
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World Trade Organization: Overview and Future Direction

During the first trade round held in Geneva in 1947, members negotiated a 20% reciprocal tariff
reduction on industrial products, and made further cuts in subsequent rounds. The Tokyo Round
represented the first attempt to reform the trade rules that had existed unchanged since 1947, by
including issues and policies that could distort international trade. As a result, Tokyo Round
negotiators established several plurilateral codes dealing with nontariff issues such as
antidumping, subsidies, standards or technical barriers to trade, import licensing, customs
valuation, and government procurement.14 Countries could choose which, if any, of these codes
they wished to adopt. While the United States agreed to al of the codes, the majority of GATT
signatories, including most developing countries, chose not to sign the codes.15
The Uruguay Round, which took eight years to negotiate (1986-1994), proved to be the most
comprehensive GATT round. This round further lowered tariffs and liberalized trade in areas that
had eluded previous negotiators, notably agriculture and textiles and apparel. Several codes were
amended and turned into multilateral commitments accepted by al members.16 It also extended
rules to new areas such as services, trade-related investment measures, and intel ectual property
rights. It created a trade policy review mechanism, which periodical y examines each member’s
trade policies and practices. Significantly, the Uruguay Round created the WTO as a legal
international organization charged with administering a revised and stronger dispute settlement
mechanism—a principal U.S. negotiating objective (see text box)—as wel as many new trade
agreements adopted during the long negotiation. For the most part, the Uruguay Round
agreements were accepted as a single package or single undertaking, meaning that al participants
and future WTO members were required to subscribe to al the multilateral agreements.
U.S. Trade Negotiating Objectives for Uruguay Round
U.S. trade negotiating objectives for the Uruguay Round were set by Congress in the Omnibus Trade and
Competitiveness Act of 1988 (P.L. 100-418), including the fol owing:

Market access. Obtain more open, equitable, and reciprocal market access in other countries;
reduced tariffs and nontariff barriers; and more effective system of international trade disciplines.

Dispute settlement. Adopt more effective and expeditious DS mechanisms and procedures, and
enable better enforcement of U.S. rights.

Transparency. Ensure broader application of the principle of transparency and clarification of the
costs and benefits of other countries’ trade policy actions.

Development. Ensure developing countries promote the “ful est possible measure of responsibility”
for maintaining an open trading system by providing reciprocal benefits and assuming equal obligations.

Agriculture. Obtain more open and fair conditions of trade in agriculture, and increase U.S. exports
by reducing barriers to trade and production subsidies.

Unfair trade practices. Discourage use of trade-distorting practices, nontariff measures, and other
unfair trading practices, such as subsidies in several sectors.

Services. Develop international rules in trade in services and reduce or eliminate barriers.

Intellectual property. Establish GATT obligations on adequate protection and effective
enforcement for IP, including copyrights, patents, and trade secrets.

Foreign direct investment. Reduce trade-distorting barriers to FDI, expand principle of national
treatment, and develop international y agreed rules.

Worker rights. Promote respect for worker rights.

14 WT O, “Pre-WTO legal texts,”
15 Douglas A. Irwin, Free Trade Under Fire, Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 226.
16 Four agreements remained “plurilateral,” including on government procurement, bovine meat, civil aircraft and dairy
products. See
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World Trade Organization
The WTO succeeded the GATT in 1995. In contrast to the GATT, the WTO was created as a
permanent organization. But as with the GATT, the WTO Secretariat and support staff is smal by
international standards and lacks independent power. The power to write rules and negotiate
future trade liberalization resides specifical y with the member countries, and not the WTO
director-general (DG) or staff. Thus, the WTO is referred to as a member-driven organization.17
The Secretariat’s primary role is to provide technical and professional support to members on
WTO activities and negotiations, monitor and analyze global trade developments, and organize
Ministerial Conferences.
Decisions within the WTO are made by consensus, although majority voting can be used in
limited circumstances. The highest-level body in the WTO is the Ministerial Conference, which is
the body of political representatives (trade ministers) from each member country (Figure 1). The
body that oversees the day-to-day operations of the WTO is the General Council, which consists
of a representative from each member country. Many other councils and committees deal with
particular issues, and members of these bodies are also national representatives.
In general, the WTO has three broad functions: administering the rules and disciplines of the
trading system; establishing new rules through negotiations; and resolving disputes between
member states.
Administering Trade Rules
The WTO administers the global rules and principles negotiated and signed by its members. The
main purpose of the rules is “to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably, and freely as
possible.”18 WTO rules and agreements are essential y contracts that bind governments to keep
their trade policies within agreed limits. A number of fundamental principles guide WTO rules.
In general, as with the GATT, these key principles are nondiscrimination and the notion that freer
trade through the gradual reduction of trade barriers strengthens the world economy and increases
prosperity for each member. The WTO agreements apply the GATT principles of
nondiscrimination as discussed above: MFN treatment and national treatment. The trade barriers
concerned include tariffs, quotas, and a growing range of nontariff measures, such as product
standards, food safety measures, subsidies, and discriminatory domestic regulations. The
fundamental principle of reciprocity is also behind members’ aim of “entering into reciprocal and
mutual y advantageous arrangements directed to the substantial reduction of tariffs and other
barriers to trade and to the elimination of discriminatory treatment in international trade
Transparency is another key principle of the WTO, which aims to reduce information asymmetry
in markets, ensure trust, and, therefore, foster greater stability in the global trading system.
Transparency commitments are incorporated into individual WTO agreements. Active
participation in various WTO committees also aims to ensure that agreements are monitored and
that members are held accountable for their actions. For example, members are required to
publish their trade practices and policies and notify new or amended regulations to WTO

17 Ibid, p. 239.
18 “T he WT O,”
19 Preamble to the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World T rade Organization,
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committees. Regular trade policy reviews of each member’s trade policies and practices provide a
deeper dive into an economy’s implementation of its commitments—see “Trade Policy Review
Mechanism (Annex 3).”
20 In addition, the WTO’s annual trade monitoring report takes stock of
trade-restrictive and trade-facilitating measures of the collective body of WTO members.
While opening markets can encourage competition, innovation, and growth, it can also entail
adjustments for workers and firms. Trade liberalization can also be more difficult for the least-
developed countries (LDCs) and countries transitioning to market economies. WTO agreements
thus al ow countries to lower trade barriers gradual y. Developing countries and sensitive sectors
in particular are usual y given longer transition periods to fulfil their obligations; developing
countries make up about two-thirds of the WTO membership—WTO members self-designate
developing country status.21 The WTO also supplements this so-cal ed “special and differential”
treatment (SDT) for developing countries with trade capacity-building measures to provide
technical assistance and help implement WTO obligations, and with permissions for countries to
extend nonreciprocal, trade preference programs.
In WTO parlance, when countries agree to open their markets further to foreign goods and
services, they “bind” their commitments or agree not to raise them. For goods, these bindings
amount to ceilings on tariff rates. A country can change its bindings, but only after negotiating
with its trading partners, which could entail compensating them for loss of trade. As shown in
Figure 2, one of the achievements of the Uruguay Round was to increase the amount of trade
under binding commitments. Bound tariff rates are not necessarily the rates WTO members apply
in practice to imports from trading partners; so-cal ed applied MFN rates can be lower than bound
rates, as reflected in tariff reductions under the GATT. Figure 3 shows average applied MFN
tariffs worldwide. In 2019, the United States simple average MFN tariff was 3.3%.
A key issue in the Doha Round for the United States was lowering major developing countries’
relatively high bound tariffs to below their applied rates in practice to achieve commercial y
meaningful new market access.
Promising not to raise a trade barrier can have a significant economic effect because the promise
provides traders and investors certainty and predictability in the commercial environment. A
growing body of economic literature suggests certainty in the stability of tariff rates may be just
as important for increasing global trade as reduction in trade barriers.22 This proved particularly
important during the 2009 global economic downturn. Unlike in the 1930s, when countries
reacted to slumping world demand by raising tariffs and other trade barriers, the WTO reported
that its 153 members (at the time), accounting for 90% of world trade, by and large did not resort
to protectionist measures in response to the crisis.23

20 For more information, see
21 T he WT O does not specify criteria for “developing” country status, though a sub-group, least-developed countries,
are defined under United Nations criteria. See, “Who are the developing countries in the WT O?”
22 See for example, Kyle Handley and Nuno Limao, “Policy Uncertainty, T rade, and Welfare: T heory and Evidence for
China and the United States,” American Economic Review, vol. 107, no. 9 (2017).
23 WT O, “ Overview of Developments in the International Trading Environment,” WT/TPR/OV/12, November 18,
2009, p. 4.
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Figure 1. WTO Structure

Source: WTO,
Figure 2. Uruguay Round Impact on Tariff Bindings

Source: Data from WTO, Understanding the WTO: Basics, Created by CRS.
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Notes: Percentages reflect shares of total tariff lines; not trade-weighted. The Uruguay Round was 1986-1994.
Figure 3. Average Applied Most-Favored Nation (MFN) Tariffs

Source: WTO, 2020, Created by CRS.
The promotion of fair and undistorted competition is another important principle of the WTO.
While the WTO is often described as a “free trade” organization, numerous rules are concerned
with ensuring transparent and non-discriminatory competition. In addition to nondiscrimination,
MFN treatment and national treatment concepts aim to promote “fair” conditions of trade. WTO
rules on subsidies and antidumping in particular aim to promote fair competition in trade through
recourse to trade remedies, or temporary restriction of imports, in response to al eged unfair trade
practices—see “Trade Remedies.”24 For example, when a foreign company receives a prohibited
subsidy for exporting as defined in WTO agreements, WTO rules al ow governments to impose
duties to offset any unfair advantage found to cause injury to their domestic industries.25
The scope of the WTO is broader than the GATT because, in addition to goods, it administers
multilateral agreements on agriculture, services, intel ectual property, and certain trade-related
investment measures. These newer rules in particular are forcing the WTO and its DS system to
deal with complex issues that go beyond tariff border measures.
Establishing New Rules and Trade Liberalization through Negotiations
As the GATT did for 47 years, the WTO provides a negotiating forum where members reduce
barriers and try to sort out their trade problems. Negotiations can involve a few countries, many
countries, or al members. As part of the post-Uruguay Round agenda, negotiations covering basic
telecommunications and financial services were completed in 1997 under the auspices of the
WTO. Groups of WTO members also negotiated deals to eliminate tariffs on certain information
technology products and improve rules and procedures for government procurement. A more

24 WT O, “Anti-dumping, subsidies, safeguards: contingencies, etc.”
25 See CRS Report R46296, Trade Remedies: Antidumping, by Christopher A. Casey, and CRS In Focus IF10018,
Trade Rem edies: Antidum ping and Countervailing Duties, by Vivian C. Jones and Christopher A. Casey .
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recent significant accomplishment was the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement in 2017,
addressing customs and logistics barriers.
The latest round of multilateral negotiations, the Doha Development Agenda (DDA), or Doha
Round, launched in 2001, has achieved limited progress to date, as the agenda proved difficult
and contentious. Despite a lack of consensus on its future, many view the round as effectively
over.26 The negotiations stal ed over issues such as reducing domestic subsidies and opening
markets further in agriculture, industrial tariffs, nontariff barriers, services, intel ectual property
rights, and SDT for developing countries. The negotiations exposed fissures between developed
countries, led by the United States and EU, and developing countries, led by China, Brazil, and
India, who have come to play a more prominent role in global trade.
The inability of countries to achieve the objectives of the Doha Round prompted many to
question the utility of the WTO as a negotiating forum, as wel as the practicality of conducting a
large-scale negotiation involving 164 participants with consensus and the single undertaking as
guiding principles. At the same time, members have advanced several proposals for moving
forward from Doha and making the WTO a stronger forum for negotiations in the future.27 (See
“Policy Issues and Future Direction.”)
With some exceptions, such as the Trade Facilitation Agreement, the WTO arguably has been
more successful in the negotiation of discrete items to which not al parties must agree or be
bound (see “Plurilateral Agreements (Annex 4)”). Some view these plurilaterals as a more
promising negotiating approach for the WTO moving forward given their flexibility, as they can
involve subsets of more “like-minded” partners and advance parts of the global trade agenda.
Some experts have raised concerns, however, that this approach could lead to “free riders”—those
who benefit from the agreement but do not make commitments—as agreements on an MFN basis,
or otherwise, could isolate some countries who do not participate and may face trade restrictions
or disadvantages as a result. Others argue that only through the single undertaking approach with
multiple issues under negotiation can there be trade-offs sufficient to bring al members on board.
Resolving Disputes
The third overal function of the WTO is to provide a mechanism to enforce its rules and settle
trade disputes. A central goal of the United States during the Uruguay Round negotiations was to
strengthen the DS mechanism that existed under the GATT. While the GATT’s process for
settling disputes between member countries was informal, ad hoc, and voluntary, the WTO DS
process is more formalized and enforceable.28 Under the GATT, panel proceedings could take
years to complete; any defending party could block an unfavorable ruling; failure to implement a
ruling carried no consequence; and the process did not cover al the agreements. Under the WTO,
there are strict timetables—though not always followed—for panel proceedings; the defending
party cannot block rulings; there is one comprehensive DS process covering al the agreements;
and the rulings are enforceable. WTO adjudicative bodies can authorize retaliation if a member
fails to implement a ruling or provide compensation. Yet, under both systems, considerable
emphasis is placed on having the member countries attempt to resolve disputes through

26 For example, see “T he Doha round finally dies a merciful death,” Financial Times, December 21, 2015.
27 See CRS Report RL32060, World Trade Organization Negotiations: The Doha Development Agenda , by Ian F.
Fergusson; and CRS Report RS22927, WTO Doha Round: Im plications for U.S. Agriculture, by Randy Schnepf.
28 T his stronger DS system was created, in part due to demands from Congress based on concerns that the GAT T
approach was ineffective in eliminating barriers to U.S. exports. In fact, it was first princ ipal trade negotiating objective
set out in the Omnibus T rade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, P.L. 100-418, §1101(b)(1), 19 U.S.C. 2901(b)(1).
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consultations and negotiations, rather than relying on formal panel rulings. See “Dispute
Settlement Understanding (DSU)” for more detail on WTO procedures and dispute trends.
The United States and the WTO
The statutory basis for U.S. membership in the WTO is the Uruguay Round Agreements Act
(URAA, P.L. 103-465), which approved the trade agreements resulting from the Uruguay Round.
The legislation contained general provisions on:
 approval and entry into force of the Uruguay Round Agreements, and the
relationship of the agreements to U.S. laws (Section 101 of the act);
 authorities to implement the results of current and future tariff negotiations
(Section 111 of the act);
 oversight of activities of the WTO (Sections 121-130 of the act);
 procedures regarding implementation of DS proceedings affecting the United
States (Section 123 of the act);
 objectives regarding extended Uruguay Round negotiations;
 statutory modifications to implement specific agreements, including:
 Antidumping Agreement;
 Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (ASCM);
 Safeguards Agreement;
 Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA);
 Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) (product standards);
 Agreement on Agriculture; and
 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intel ectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
U.S. priorities and objectives for the GATT/WTO have been reflected in various trade promotion
authority (TPA) legislation since 1974. For example, the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act
of 1988 specifical y contained provisions directing U.S. negotiators to negotiate disciplines on
agriculture, DS, intel ectual property, trade in services, and safeguards, among others, that
resulted in WTO agreements in the Uruguay Round. The Trade Act of 2002 provided U.S.
objectives for the Doha Round, including seeking to expand commitments on e-commerce and
clarifications to the WTO DS system. The 2015 TPA, perhaps reflecting the impasse of the Doha
Round, was more muted, seeking full implementation of existing agreements, enhanced
compliance by members with their WTO obligations, and new negotiations to extend
commitments to new areas.29
Section 125(b) of the URAA sets procedures for congressional disapproval of WTO participation.
It specifies that Congress’s approval of the WTO agreement shal cease to be effective “if and
only if” Congress enacts a privileged joint resolution cal ing for withdrawal. Congress may vote
every five years on withdrawal; resolutions were introduced in 2000 and 2005, however neither
passed.30 The debates in 2000 and 2005 were characterized by concerns about certain dispute
settlement cases, especial y adverse decisions on trade remedies, and beliefs that WTO

29 See CRS Report R43491, Trade Promotion Authority (TPA): Frequently Asked Questions, by Ian F. Fergusson and
Christopher M. Davis.
30 For the 2000 and 2005 resolutions, see
actions and -resolution/27/actions.
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membership impinges U.S. sovereignty. WTO supporters emphasized the economic benefits and
value of an open and rules-based trading system. Several factors shaped past debates. In 2000,
China had yet to join the WTO. In 2005, China had acceded but was not yet playing a pivotal
role, and the Doha Round, launched in 2001, was actively being negotiated. More recently, U.S.
concerns with the WTO have grown in some quarters and perception of WTO’s benefits have
dimmed among some Members.31 In May 2020, withdrawal resolutions were introduced during
the 116th Congress by Representatives DeFazio and Pal one (H.J.Res. 89) and by Senator Hawley
(S.J.Res. 71).32 A rule change proposed by the House Rules Committee and adopted by the
House, as wel as by an interpretation of the statute reportedly made by the Senate
Parliamentarian, are likely to prevent votes from occurring on the measures.33
WTO Agreements
The WTO member-led body negotiates, administers, and settles disputes for agreements that
cover goods, agriculture, services, certain trade-related investment measures, and intel ectual
property rights, among other issues. The WTO core principles are enshrined in a series of trade
agreements that include rules and commitments specific to each agreement, subject to various
exceptions. The GATT/WTO system of agreements has expanded rulemaking to several areas of
international trade, but does not extensively cover some key areas, including multilateral
investment rules, trade-related labor or environment issues, and emerging issues like digital trade
or the commercial role of state-owned enterprises.
Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization
The Marrakesh Agreement is the umbrel a agreement under which the various agreements,
annexes, commitment schedules, and understandings reside. The Marrakesh Agreement itself
created the WTO as a legal international organization and sets forth its functions, structure,
secretariat, budget procedures, decisionmaking, accession, entry-into-force, withdrawal, and other
provisions. The Agreement contains four annexes. The three major substantive areas of
commitments undertaken by the members are contained in Annex 1.
Multilateral Agreement on Trade in Goods (Annex 1A)
The Multilateral Agreement on Trade in Goods establishes the rules for trade in goods through
sectoral or issue-specific agreements (see Table 2). Its core is the GATT 1994, which includes
GATT 1947, the amendments, understanding, protocols, and decisions of the GATT from 1947 to
1994, cumulatively known as the GATT-acquis, as wel as six Understandings on Articles of the
GATT 1947 negotiated in the Uruguay Round. In addition to clarifying the core WTO principles,
each agreement contains sector- or issue-specific rules and principles. The schedule of
commitments identifies each member’s specific binding commitments on tariffs for goods in
general, and combinations of tariffs and quotas for some agricultural goods. Through a series of
negotiating rounds, members agreed to the current level of trade liberalization (Figure 2 above).

31 For example, see Senator Josh Hawley’s op-ed, “T he WT O Should be Abolished,” New York Times, May 5, 2020.
32 CRS Insight IN11399, The WTO Withdrawal Resolutions, by Ian F. Fergusson and Christopher M. Davis.
33 Doug Palmer, “New ruling quashes Hawley’s hope for Senate WT O withdrawal vote,” Politico, July 1, 2020.
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Table 2. Marrakesh Protocol to the GATT 1994

Agreement on
Agreement on
Agreement on Import
Agreement on Trade-
Implementation of
Licensing Procedures
Related Aspects of
Article VI (Anti-
Intel ectual Property
Rights (TRIPS)

Agreement on the
Agreement on
Agreement on Subsidies
Understanding on Rules
Application of Sanitary and
Implementation of
and Countervailing
and Procedures Governing
Phytosanitary Measures
Article VII (Customs
the Settlement of Disputes

Agreement on Technical
Agreement on
Agreement on
Agreement on Trade
Barriers to Trade (TBT)
Preshipment Inspection
in Civil Aircraft

Agreement on Trade-
Agreement on Rules of
General Agreement
Agreement on
Related Investment
Origin (ROO)
on Trade in Services
Measures (TRIMS)
Source: CRS based on WTO.
In the last four rounds of negotiations, WTO members aimed to expand international trade rules
beyond tariff reductions to tackle barriers in other areas. For example, agreements on technical
barriers to trade (TBT) and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures aim to protect a country’s
rights to implement domestic regulations and standards, while ensuring they do not discriminate
against trading partners or unnecessarily restrict trade.34
Agreement on Agriculture (AoA)
The Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) includes rules and commitments on market access and
disciplines on certain domestic agricultural support programs and export subsidies. Its objective
was to provide a framework for WTO members to reform certain aspects of agricultural trade and
domestic farm policies to facilitate more market-oriented and open trade.35 Regarding market
access, members agreed not to restrict agricultural imports by quotas or other nontariff measures,
converting them to tariff-equivalent levels of protection, such as tariff-rate quotas—a process
cal ed “tariffication.” Developed countries committed to cut tariffs (or out-of-quota tariffs, those
tariffs applied to any imports above the agreed quota threshold) by an average of 36% in equal
increments over six years; developing countries committed to 24% tariff cuts over 10 years.

34 T BT refers to technical regulations, standards and certification and conformity assessment pro cedures; while SPS
refers to food safety and animal and plant health measures.
35 WT O, “Agriculture: fairer markets for farmers,”
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Special safeguards to temporarily restrict imports were permitted for products considered
sensitive by a member in certain events, such as fal ing prices or surges of imports.
The AoA also categorizes and restricts agricultural domestic support programs, according to their
potential to distort trade. Members agreed to limit and reduce the most distortive forms of
domestic subsidies over 6 to 10 years, referred to as “amber box” subsidies and measured by the
Aggregate Measure of Support (AMS) index.36 Subsidies considered to cause minimal distortion
on production and trade are not subject to spending limits and are exempted from obligations as
“green box” and “blue box” subsidies or under de minimis (below a certain threshold) or SDT
provisions. A so-cal ed “peace” clause protected members using domestic subsidies that comply
with the agreement from being chal enged under other WTO agreements, such as through use of
countervailing duties; the clause expired after nine years in 2003. In addition, AoA commitments
required that export subsidies were to be capped and subject to incremental reductions.
Members are required to submit notifications regularly on the implementation of AoA
commitments on market access, domestic subsidies, and export competition—though some
countries, including the United States, have raised concerns that these requirements are not
abided by in a consistent fashion.
Further agricultural trade reform was a major priority under the Doha Round, but to date,
negotiations have seen limited progress on resolving major issues. Members have advanced some
areas for reform, however, for example, in 2015 members reached an agreement to fully eliminate
export subsidies for agriculture.
Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS)
The framework of the GATT did not address the growing linkages between trade and investment.
During the Uruguay Round, the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS) was
drafted to address certain investment measures that may restrict and distort trade. The agreement
did not address the regulation or protection of foreign investment, but focused on investment
measures that may violate basic GATT disciplines on trade in goods, such as nondiscrimination.
Specifical y, members committed not to apply any TRIM that is inconsistent with provisions on
national treatment or a prohibition of quantitative restrictions on imports or exports. TRIMS
includes an annex with an il ustrative list of prohibited measures, such as local content
requirements—requirements to purchase or use products of domestic origin. The agreement also
includes a safeguard measure for balance of payment difficulties, which permits developing
countries to temporarily suspend TRIMS obligations.
While TRIMS and other WTO agreements, such as the GATS (see below), include some
provisions pertaining to investment, the lack of comprehensive multilateral rules on investment
led to several efforts under the Doha Round to consider proposals, which to date have been
unfruitful (see “Future Negotiations on Selected Issues”). In December 2017, 70 WTO members
announced new discussions on developing a multilateral framework on investment facilitation, in
part to complement the successful negotiation of rules on trade facilitation.

36 T he United States committed to spend no more than $19.1 billion annually on amber box programs. For more detail,
see CRS Report R45305, Agriculture in the WTO: Rules and Lim its on U.S. Dom estic Support, by Randy Schnepf.
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General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) (Annex 1B)
The GATT agreements focused solely on trade in goods. Services were eventual y covered in the
GATS as a result of the Uruguay Round.37 The GATS provides the first and only multilateral
framework of principles and rules for government policies and regulations affecting services
trade. It has served as a foundation for bilateral and regional trade agreements covering services.
The services trade agenda is complex due to the characteristics of the sector. “Services” refers to
a growing range of economic activities, such as audiovisual, construction, computer and related
services, express delivery, e-commerce, financial, professional (e.g., accounting and legal
services), retail and wholesaling, transportation, tourism, and telecommunications. Advances in
information technology and the growth of global supply chains have reduced barriers to trade in
services, expanding the services tradable across national borders. But liberalizing trade in services
can be more complex than for goods, since the impediments faced by service providers occur
largely within the importing country, as so-cal ed “behind the border” barriers, some in the form
of government regulations. While the right of governments to regulate service industries is widely
recognized as prudent and necessary to protect consumers from harmful or unqualified providers,
a main focus of WTO members is whether these regulations are applied to foreign service
providers in a discriminatory and unnecessarily trade restrictive manner that limits market access.
The GATS contains multiple parts, including definition of scope (excluding government-provided
services); principles and obligations, including MFN treatment and transparency; market access
and national treatment obligations; annexes listing exceptions that members take to MFN
treatment; as wel as various technical elements. Members negotiated GATS on a positive list
basis, which means that the commitments only apply to those services and modes of delivery
listed in each member’s schedule of commitments.38 WTO members adopted a system of
classifying four modes of delivery for services to measure trade in services and classify
government measures that affect trade in services, including cross-border supply, consumption
abroad, commercial presence, and temporary presence of natural persons (Figure 4). Under
GATS, unless a member country has specifical y committed to open its market to suppliers in a
particular service, the national treatment and market access obligations do not apply.
In addition to the GATS, some members made specific sectoral commitments in financial services
and telecommunications. Negotiations to expand these commitments were later folded into the
broader services negotiations.
WTO members aimed to update GATS provisions and market access commitments as part of the
Doha Round. Several WTO members have since submitted revised offers of services
liberalization, but in the view of the United States and others the talks have not yielded adequate
offers of improved market access (see “Future Negotiations”). Given the lack of progress, in
2013, 23 WTO members, including the United States, representing approximately 70% of global
services trade, launched negotiations of a services-specific plurilateral agreement.39 Although
outside of the WTO structure, participants designed the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA)
negotiations in a way that would not preclude a concluded agreement from someday being
brought into the WTO. TiSA talks were initial y led by Australia and the United States, but have
since stal ed; the Trump Administration has not stated a formal position on TiSA.

37 For more analysis, see CRS Report R43291, U.S. Trade in Services: Trends and Policy Issues, by Rachel F. Fefer.
38 Within U.S. FT As, the United States has sought a more comprehensive negative list approach, in which obligations
are to apply to all types of services, unless explicitly excluded by a country in its list of nonconforming measures.
39 See CRS In Focus IF10311, Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) Negotiations, by Rachel F. Fefer.
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Figure 4. Four Modes of Service Delivery and Hypothetical Examples

Source: CRS based on WTO.
Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property
Rights (TRIPS) (Annex 1C)
The TRIPS Agreement marked the first time multilateral trade rules incorporated intel ectual
property rights (IPR)—legal, private, enforceable rights that governments grant to inventors and
artists to encourage innovation and creative output.40 Like the GATS, TRIPS was negotiated as
part of the Uruguay Round and was a major U.S. objective for the round. TRIPS sets minimum
standards of protection and enforcement for IPR. Much of the agreement sets out the extent of
coverage of the various types of intel ectual property, including patents, copyrights, trademarks,
trade secrets, and geographical indications. TRIPS includes provisions on nondiscrimination and
on enforcement measures, such as civil and administrative procedures and remedies.
The TRIPS Agreement’s newly placed requirements on many developing countries elevated the
debate over the relationship between IPR and development. At issue is the balance of rights and
obligations between protecting private right holders and securing broader public benefits, such as
access to medicines and the free flow of data, especial y in developing countries. TRIPS includes
flexibilities for developing countries al owing longer phase-in periods for implementing
obligations and, separately, for pharmaceutical patent obligations—these were subsequently
extended for LDCs until January 2033 or until they no longer qualify as LDCs, whichever is

40 For more detail, see CRS Report RL34292, Intellectual Property Rights and International Trade, by Shayerah Ilias
Akhtar and Ian F. Fergusson.
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earlier.41 The 2001 WTO “Doha Declaration” committed members to interpret and implement
TRIPS obligations in a way that supports public health and access to medicines.42 In 2005,
members agreed to amend TRIPS to al ow developing and LDC members that lack production
capacity to import generic medicines from third country producers under “compulsory licensing”
arrangements.43 The amendment entered into force in January 2017.44
Trade Remedies
While WTO agreements uphold MFN principles, they also al ow exceptions to binding tariffs in
certain circumstances. The WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (ASCM),
the WTO Agreement on Safeguards, and articles in the GATT, commonly known as the
Antidumping Agreement, al ow for trade remedies in the form of temporary measures (e.g.,
primarily duties or quotas) to mitigate the adverse impact of various trade practices on domestic
industries and workers. These include actions taken against dumping (sel ing at an unfairly low
price) or to counter certain government subsidies, and emergency measures to limit “fairly”-
traded imports temporarily, designed to “safeguard” domestic industries.
Supporters of trade remedies view them as necessary to shield domestic industries and workers
from unfair competition and to level the playing field. Other domestic constituents, including
some importers and downstream consuming industries, voice concern that antidumping (AD) and
countervailing duty (CVD) actions can serve as disguised protectionism and create inefficiencies
in the world trading system by raising prices on imported goods. How trade remedies are applied
to imports has become a major source of disputes under the WTO (see below).
The United States has enacted trade remedy laws that conform to the WTO rules:45
 U.S. antidumping laws (19 U.S.C. §1673 et seq.) provide relief to domestic
industries that have been, or are threatened with, the adverse impact of imports
sold in the U.S. market at prices that are shown to be less than fair market value.
The relief provided is an additional import duty placed on the dumped imports.
 U.S. countervailing duty laws (19 U.S.C. §1671 et seq.) give similar relief to
domestic industries that have been, or are threatened with, the adverse impact of
imported goods that have been subsidized by a foreign government or public
entity, and can therefore be sold at lower prices than U.S.-produced goods. The
relief provided is a duty placed on the subsidized imports.
 U.S. safeguard laws give domestic industries relief from import surges of goods;
no al egation of “unfair” practices is needed to launch a safeguard investigation.
Although used less frequently than AD/CVD laws, Section 201 of the Trade Act
of 1974 (19 U.S.C. §2251 et seq.), is designed to give domestic industry the

41 WT O, “Intellectual property: protection and enforcement,”
42 Declaration on the T RIPS Agreement and Public Health, (WT /MIN(01)/DEC/2), November 14, 2001, For more on T RIPS, see CRS Report
RL34292, Intellectual Property Rights and International Trade, by Shayerah Ilias Akhtar and Ian F. Fergusson .
43 WT O, “ WT O IP rules amended to ease poor countries’ access to affordable medicines,” January 23, 2017,
44 Notably, this marked the first time that a WT O agreement was amended since the WT O’s inception (WTO 2017).
45 For more detail, see CRS Report R46296, Trade Remedies: Antidumping, by Christopher A. Casey, CRS In Focus
IF10018, Trade Rem edies: Antidum ping and Countervailing Duties, by Vivian C. Jones and Christopher A. Casey , and
CRS In Focus IF10786, Safeguards: Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, by Vivian C. Jones.
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opportunity to adjust to import competition and remain competitive. The relief
provided is general y a temporary import duty and/or quota. Unlike AD/CVD,
safeguard laws require presidential action for relief to be put into effect.
Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU) (Annex 2)
The DS system, often cal ed the “crown jewel” of the WTO, has been considered by some
observers to be one of the most important successes of the multilateral trading system.46 WTO
agreements contain provisions that are either binding or nonbinding. The WTO Understanding on
Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement of Disputes—Dispute Settlement Understanding
or DSU—provides an enforceable means for WTO members to resolve disputes arising under the
binding provisions.47 The DSU commits members not to determine violations of WTO obligations
or impose penalties unilateral y, but to settle complaints about al eged violations under DSU rules
and procedures. In recent years, there have been some cal s by members for reform of the DS
system to deal with procedural delays and new strains on the system, including the growing
volume and complexity of cases and disagreement over the role of the Appel ate Body (AB).
The Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) is a plenary committee of the WTO, which oversees the
panels and adopts the recommendation of a DS panel or AB panel (see below). Panels are
composed of three (or five in complex cases) panelists—not citizens of the members involved—
chosen through a roster of “wel qualified governmental and/or non-governmental individuals”
maintained by the Secretariat. WTO members must first attempt to settle a dispute through
consultations, but if these fail, a member seeking to initiate a dispute may request that a panel
examine and report on its complaint. A respondent party is able to block the establishment of a
panel at the DSB once, but if the complainant requests its establishment again at a subsequent
meeting of the DSB, a panel is established. At its conclusion, the panel recommends a decision to
the DSB that it wil adopt unless al parties agree to block the recommendation. The DSU sets out
a timeline of approximately one year for the initial resolution of disputes (see Figure 5); however,
cases are rarely resolved in this timeframe.
The DSU also provides for AB review of panel reports in the event a decision is appealed. The
AB is composed of seven rotating panelists, appointed by the DSB, that serve four-year terms,
with the possibility of a one-term reappointment. According to the DSU, appeals are to be limited
to questions of law or legal interpretation developed by the panel in the case (Article 17.6). The
AB is to make a recommendation, and the DSB is to ratify that recommendation within 120 days
of the ratification of the initial panel report, but again, such timely resolution rarely occurs. The
United States has raised several issues regarding the practices of the AB and has blocked the
appointments of several judges—for more on the debate, see “Proposed Institutional Reforms.”

46 WT O, “T he Place of the WT O in the International Legal Order,” Speeches—DG Pascal Lamy, June 15, 2008,
47 For more information, see CRS In Focus IF10436, Dispute Settlement in the World Trade Organization: Key Legal
, by Brandon J. Murrill.
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Figure 5. WTO Dispute Settlement Procedure
Stages and Time Periods

Source: Created by CRS. Based on information from Madhur Jha, Samantha Amerasinghe, and Philippe Dauba -
Pantanacce, Global trade: Trade first! (Avoiding an own goal), Standard Chartered, 2017, p. 17.
Notes: Alternating colors indicate a different stage of the procedure. Time periods displayed are approximate.
The WTO establishes timelines for each stage with one year total for the initial resolution of disputes; however,
in practice, cases are rarely resolved within this timeframe.
Following the adoption of a panel or appel ate report, the DSB oversees the implementation of the
findings. The losing party is then to propose how it is to bring itself into compliance “within a
reasonable period of time” with the DSB-adopted findings. A reasonable period of time is
determined by mutual agreement with the DSB, among the parties, or through arbitration. If a
dispute arises over the manner of implementation, the DSB may form a panel to judge
compliance. If a party declines to comply, the parties negotiate over compensation pending full
implementation. If there is stil no agreement, the DSB may authorize retaliation in the amount of
the determined cost of the offending party’s measure to the aggrieved party’s economy.
Filing a DS case provides a way for countries to resolve disputes through a legal process and to
do so publicly, signaling to domestic and international constituents the need to address
outstanding issues. DS procedures can serve as a deterrent for countries considering not abiding
by WTO agreements, and rulings can help build a body of case law to inform countries when they
implement new regulatory regimes or interpret WTO agreements.
That said, WTO agreements and decisions of panels are not self-executing and cannot directly
modify U.S. law. If a case is brought against the United States and the panel renders an adverse
decision, the United States would be expected to remove the offending measure within a
reasonable period of time or face the possibility of either paying compensation to the complainant
or be subject to sanctions, often in the form of higher tariffs on imports of certain U.S. products.
As of mid-2020, the WTO has initiated nearly 600 disputes on behalf of its members and issued
more than 350 rulings, with DS activity peaking in 2018.48 Nearly two-thirds of WTO members
have participated in the DS system. Not al complaints result in formal panel proceedings; about

48 WT O, “Dispute settlement activity—some figures,”
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half were resolved during consultations. Complainants have usual y won their cases, in large part
because they tend to only initiate disputes that they have a higher chance of winning. In the words
of WTO DG Roberto Azevêdo, the widespread use of the DS system is evidence it “enjoys
tremendous confidence among the membership, who value it as a fair, effective, efficient
mechanism to solve trade problems.”49
The United States is an active user of the DS system. Among WTO members, the United States
has been a complainant in the most dispute cases since the system was established in 1995,
initiating 124 disputes.50 The two largest targets of complaints initiated by the United States are
China and the EU, which, combined, account for more than one-third (Figure 6).
Figure 6. WTO Disputes Involving the United States

Source: WTO, Created by CRS.
Notes: Does not include cases with U.S. participation as a third party. Dispute count as of August 1, 2020.
As a respondent in 155 dispute cases since 1995, the United States has also had the most disputes
filed against it by other WTO members, followed by the EU (87 disputes) and China (44
disputes). The EU has filed the most cases against the United States, followed by Canada, China,
South Korea, Brazil, and India. A large number of complaints concern trade remedies, in
particular methodologies used for calculating and imposing antidumping duties on U.S. imports.
Several pending WTO disputes are of significance to the United States. These include chal enges
to the tariff measures imposed by the Trump Administration under U.S. trade laws, including
Section 201 (safeguards), Section 232 (national security), and Section 301 (“unfair” trading
practices) (Table 3). Nine WTO members, including China, the EU, Canada, and Mexico,
initiated separate complaints at the WTO, based on al egations that U.S. Section 232 tariffs on
steel and aluminum imports are inconsistent with WTO rules. In May 2019, the cases involving
Canada and Mexico were withdrawn, due to a negotiated settlement with the United States.51
Consultations were unsuccessful in resolving the remaining disputes and panel decisions are
expected in late 2020. Most countries notified their complaints pursuant to the Agreement on
Safeguards, though some also al ege that U.S. tariff measures and related exemptions are contrary

49 WT O, “WT O disputes reach 500 mark,” November 10, 2015,
50 Dispute count as of early August 2020. WT O,
51 T he three countries announced a joint monitoring and consultation system to replace the tariffs. See
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to U.S. obligations under several provisions of the GATT. Several other WTO members have
requested to join the disputes as third parties.
In 2018, the United States filed its own WTO complaints over retaliatory tariffs imposed by six
countries (Canada, China, EU, Mexico, Russia, and Turkey) in response to U.S. actions.52 Most
recently, in July 2019 the United States filed a similar case against India. The cases are in the
panel stage (except for resolved cases with Canada and Mexico). The United States has invoked
the national security exception (GATT Article XXI) in defense of its tariffs (see “Key Exceptions
under GATT/WTO”), and states that the tariffs are not safeguards as claimed by other countries.
Table 3. WTO Challenges to Tariff Measures Imposed by Trump Administration
Under U.S. Trade Laws
Date Filed / Latest Status

U.S. safeguard measure on
South Korea
DS545 5/14/18 consultations requested;
crystalline silicon photovoltaic

9/26/18 panel established but not yet composed

DS562 8/14/18 consultations requested
10/24/19 panel composed
U.S. safeguard measure on
South Korea
DS546 5/14/18 consultations requested;
large residential washers
7/01/19 panel composed

U.S. tariffs on steel and
DS544 4/05/18 consultations requested;
aluminum imports
01/25/19 panel composed
DS547 5/18/18 consultations requested;
01/25/19 panel composed
DS548 6/01/18 consultations requested;
01/25/19 panel composed
DS550 6/01/18 consultations requested;
05/23/19 settled or terminated
(withdrawn, mutual y agreed solution)
DS551 6/05/18 consultations requested;
05/28/19 settled or terminated
(withdrawn, mutual y agreed solution)
DS552 6/12/18 consultations requested;
01/25/19 panel composed
DS554 6/29/18 consultations requested;
01/25/19 panel composed
DS556 7/09/18 consultations requested;
01/25/19 panel composed

DS564 8/15/18 consultations requested;
01/25/19 panel composed


52 UST R, “United States Challenges Five WT O Members Imposing Illegal T ariffs Against U.S. Products,” press
release, July 2018,
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Date Filed / Latest Status
U.S. tariffs on certain Chinese
DS543 4/04/18 consultations requested;
06/03/19 panel composed

DS565 8/23/18 consultations requested

DS587 09/02/19 consultations requested
Source: WTO,
Note: Status as of August 1, 2020. Panel established is when the DSB has agreed to create a panel but the
panelists have not yet been chosen (i.e., panel composed).
Trade Policy Review Mechanism (Annex 3)
Annex 3 sets the procedures for regular trade policy reviews that are conducted by the Secretariat
to report on the trade policies of members. These reviews are carried out by the Trade Policy
Review Body (TPRB) and are conducted periodical y with the largest economies (United States,
EU, Japan, and China) evaluated every three years, the next 16 largest economies every five
years, and remaining economies every seven years. These reviews are meant to increase
transparency of a country’s trade policy and enable a multilateral assessment of the effect of
policies on the trading system. The reviews also al ow each member country to question specific
practices of other members, and may serve as a forum to flag, and possibly avoid, future disputes.
The most recent trade policy review of China occurred in July 2018.53 During the review
members noted and commended some recent initiatives of China to open market access and
liberalize its foreign investment regime. Several concerns were also raised, including “the
preponderant role of the State in general, and of state-owned enterprises in particular,” and
“China’s support and subsidy policies and local content requirements, including those that may be
part of the 2025 [Made in China] plan.”54
2018 Trade Policy Review of the United States
The most recent trade policy review of the United States culminated in December 2018.55 The Secretariat’s
report issued in November is a factual description of a country’s policy and of significant developments since the
last review. It does not pass judgement on the consistency of a country’s policies with WTO agreements.
Subsequently, the TPRB met on December 17-19 to assess the report, pose questions, and al ow other members
to opine on specific aspects of U.S. policy. In his statement, U.S. Ambassador to the WTO Dennis Shea contended
that U.S. trade policy is “steadfastly focused on the national interest including retaining and using US sovereign
power to act in defense of that interest.” He described U.S. trade policy as resting on five major pil ars:
“supporting U.S. national security, strengthening the U.S. economy, negotiating better trade deals, aggressive
enforcement of U.S. trade laws, and reforming the multilateral trading system.”56
While WTO members general y lauded the United States on a free and open trade policy, and recognized its
traditional role as a pil ar of the multilateral trading system, some countries voiced their displeasure at recent U.S.
trade actions. Members took issue with the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum as a result of the Section
232 national security determinations; the imposition of Section 301 tariffs on China; increased use of trade
remedies; and rising levels of trade-distorting farm subsidies, including the aid package for agricultural producers

53 For the text of the report, see
54 WT O, “T rade Policy Review: China: Concluding remarks by the Chairperson,” July 11 and 13, 2018,
55 See
56 “U.S. Statement by Ambassador Shea at the 14th T rade Policy Review of the United States,” December 17, 2018,
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hit by retaliatory tariffs; as wel as perennial irritants, such as Buy American policies and Jones Act maritime and
cabotage restrictions.57 According to the EU Ambassador to the WTO Marc Vanheukelen, “the multilateral
trading system is in a deep crisis and the United States is in the epicenter for a number of reasons.”58
Plurilateral Agreements (Annex 4)
Most WTO agreements in force have been negotiated on a multilateral basis, meaning the entire
body of WTO members subscribes to them. By contrast, plurilateral agreements are negotiated by
a subset of WTO members and often focus on a specific sector. A handful of such agreements
supplement the main WTO agreements discussed previously.59
Within the WTO, members have two ways to negotiate on a plurilateral basis, also known as
“variable geometry.”60 A group of countries can negotiate with one another provided that the
group extends the benefits to al other WTO members on an MFN basis—the foundational
nondiscrimination principle of the GATT/WTO. Because the benefits of the agreement are to be
shared among al WTO members and not just the participants, the negotiating group likely would
include those members forming a critical mass of world trade in the product or sector covered by
the negotiation in order to avoid the problem of free riders—those countries that receive trade
benefits without committing to liberalization. An example of this type of plurilateral agreement
granting unconditional MFN is the Information Technology Agreement (ITA), in which tariffs on
selected information technology goods were lowered to zero, as negotiated by WTO members
comprising more than 90% of world trade in these goods (see below).
A second type of plurilateral is the non-MFN agreement, often referred to as “conditional-MFN.”
In this type, participants undertake obligations among themselves, but do not extend the benefits
to other WTO members, unless they directly participate in the agreement. Also known as the
“club” approach, non-MFN plurilaterals al ow for wil ing members to address policy issues not
covered by WTO disciplines. However, these agreements require a waiver from the entire WTO
membership to commence negotiations. Some countries are reluctant to al ow other countries to
negotiate for fear of being left out, even while not being ready to commit themselves to new
disciplines. Yet, according to one commentator, these members are “simply outsmarting
themselves” by encouraging more ambitious members to take negotiations out of the WTO.
Government Procurement Agreement
The Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) is an early example of a plurilateral agreement
with limited WTO membership—first developed as a code in the 1979 Tokyo Round. As of the
end of 2019, 48 WTO members (including the 28 EU member countries and United States)
participate in the GPA; non-GPA signatories do not enjoy rights under the GPA.61 The GPA

57 “Concluding Remarks of the Chairperson, Ambassador Sunanta Kangvalkulkij” T rade Policy Review Body,
December 19, 2018.
58 “U.S. Criticized at WT O,” Washington Trade Daily, December 18, 2018.
59 One example is the Agreement on T rade in Civil Aircraft , which entered into force in 1980 between 32 WT O
members, including the United States. T he agreement eliminates import duties on all aircraft, other than military
aircraft, and other specified products. See
60 Peter Sutherland et al., “T he Future of the WT O: Addressing institutional challenges in the new millennium,” World
T rade Organization, 2004, p. 64.
61 In November 2018, WT O members approved in principle the UK’s market access offer to continue GPA
membership as a separate member, following its pending withdrawal from the EU. See WT O,
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provides market access for various nondefense government projects to contractors of its
signatories.62 Each member specifies government entities and goods and services (with thresholds
and limitations) that are open to procurement bids by foreign firms of the other GPA members.
For example, the U.S. GPA market access schedules of commitments cover 85 federal-level
entities and voluntary commitments by 37 states.63
Negotiations to expand the GPA were concluded in March 2012, and a revised GPA entered into
force on April 6, 2014. Several countries, including China—which committed to pursuing GPA
participation in its 2001 WTO accession process—are in long-pending negotiations to accede to
the GPA. Australia was the latest WTO member to join the revised GPA in May 2019. According
to estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), from 2008 to 2012, 8% of
total global government expenditures, and approximately one-third of U.S. federal government
procurement, was covered by the GPA or similar commitments in U.S. FTAs.64
Information Technology Agreement
Unlike the GPA, the Information Technology Agreement (ITA) is a plurilateral agreement that is
applied on an unconditional MFN basis. In other words, al WTO members benefit from the tariff
reductions enacted by parties to the ITA regardless of their own participation.65 Original y
concluded in 1996 by a subset of WTO members, the ITA provides tariff-free treatment for
covered IT products; however, the agreement does not cover services or digital products like
software. In December 2015, a group of 51 WTO members, including the United States,
negotiated an expanded agreement to cover an additional 201 products and technologies, valued
at over $1 tril ion in annual global exports.66 Members committed to reduce the majority of tariffs
by 2019. In June 2016, the United States initiated the ITA tariff cuts. China began its cuts in mid-
September 2016, with plans to reduce tariffs over five to seven years.
Trade Facilitation Agreement
The Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) is the newest WTO multilateral trade agreement,
entering into force on February 22, 2017, and perhaps the lasting legacy of the Doha Round, since
it is the only major concluded component of the negotiations.67 The TFA aims to address multiple
trade barriers confronted by exporters and importers and reduce trade costs by streamlining,
modernizing, and speeding up the customs processes for cross-border trade, as wel as making it
more transparent. Some analysts view the TFA as evidence that achieving new multilateral
agreements is possible and that the design, including special and differential treatment provisions,
could serve as a template for future agreements.

62 For more information on the GPA, see
63 For the U.S. GPA schedule, see
64 U.S. GAO, United States Reported Opening More Opportunities to Foreign Firms T han Other Countries, but Bett er
Data Are Needed, GAO-17-168, February 9, 2017, p. 10. Also, see CRS In Focus IF11580, U.S. Governm ent
Procurem ent and International Trade
, by Andres B. Schwarzenberg.
65 For more information on the ITA, see and
66 UST R, “U.S. and WT O Partners Announce Final Agreement on Landmark Expansion of Information T echnology
Agreement,” December 2015,
67 See CRS Report R44777, WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, by Rachel F. Fefer and Vivian C. Jones.
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The TFA has three sections. The first is the
heart of the agreement, containing the main
Impact of the WTO Trade Facilitation
provisions, of which many, but not al , are
binding and enforceable. Mandatory articles
According to WTO estimates, global export gains from
include requiring members to publish
ful implementation of the TFA could range from $750
information, including publishing certain
bil ion to more than $3.6 tril ion dol ars per year and,
for the 2015-2030 time period, could increase world
items online; issue advance rulings in a
export growth by 2.7% a year and world GDP growth
reasonable amount of time; and provide for
by over 0.5% a year.
appeals or reviews, if requested. The second
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
section provides for SDT for developing
Development (OECD) estimates that TFA
country and LDC members, al owing them
implementation could lower the costs of doing trade as
more time and assistance to implement the
much as 12.5%-17.5% global y.
agreement. The TFA is the first WTO
agreement in which members determine their own implementation schedules and in which
progress in implementation is explicitly linked to technical and financial c apacity. The TFA
requires that “donor members,” including the United States, provide the needed capacity building
and support. Final y, the third section sets institutional arrangements for administering the TFA.
As of the TFA’s third anniversary in February 2020, 91% of the membership have ratified the
agreement. Members have been actively notifying their commitments and progress, and capacity-
building activities are ongoing to support full implementation
Key Exceptions under GATT/WTO
Under WTO agreements, members general y cannot discriminate among trading partners, though
specific market access commitments can vary significantly by agreement and by member. WTO
rules permit some broad exceptions, which al ow members to adopt trade policies and practices
that may be inconsistent with WTO disciplines and principles such as MFN treatment, granting
special preferences to certain countries, and restricting trade in certain sectors, provided certain
conditions are met. Some of the key exceptions follow.
General exceptions. GATT Article XX grants WTO members the right to take certain measures
necessary to protect human, animal, or plant life or health, or to conserve exhaustible natural
resources, among other aims. The measures, however, must not entail “arbitrary” or
“unjustifiable” discrimination between countries, or serve as “disguised restriction on
international trade.” GATS Article XIV provides for similar exceptions for trade in services.
National security exception. GATT Article XXI protects the right of members to take any action
considered “necessary for the protection of essential national security interests,” as related to (i)
fissionable materials; (i ) traffic in arms, ammunition, and implements of war, and such traffic in
other goods and materials carried out to supply a military establishment; and (i i) taken in time of
war or other emergency in international relations. Similar exceptions relate to trade in services
(GATS Article XIV bis) and intel ectual property rights (TRIPS Article 73).
More favorable treatment to developing countries. The so-cal ed “enabling clause” of the
GATT—cal ed the “Decision on Differential and More Favorable Treatment, Reciprocity and
Fuller Participation of Developing Countries” of 1979—enables developed country members to
grant differential and more favorable treatment to developing countries that is not extended to
other members. For example, this permits granting unilateral and nonreciprocal trade preferences
to developing countries under special programs, such as the U.S. Generalized System of
Preferences (GSP), and also relates to regional trade agreements outside the WTO (see below).
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Exceptions for regional trade agreements (RTAs). WTO countries are permitted to depart from
the MFN principle and grant each other more favorable treatment in trade agreements outside the
WTO, provided certain conditions are met. Three sets of rules general y apply. GATT Article
XXIV applies to goods trade, and al ows the formation of free trade areas and customs unions
(areas with common external tariffs). These provisions require that RTAs be notified to the other
WTO members, cover “substantial y al trade,” and do not effectively raise barriers on imports
from third parties. GATS Article V al ows for economic integration agreements related to services
trade, provided they entail “substantial sectoral coverage,” eliminate “substantial y al
discrimination,” and do not “raise the overal level of barriers to trade in services” on members
outside the agreement. Paragraph 2(c) of the “enabling clause,” which deals with special and
differential treatment, al ows for RTAs among developing countries in goods trade, based on the
“mutual reduction or elimination of tariffs.” RTA provisions in the GATS also al ow greater
flexibility in sectoral coverage within services agreements that include developing countries.
Joining the WTO: The Accession Process
There are currently 164 members of the WTO. Another 22 countries are seeking to become
members.68 Joining the WTO means taking on the commitments and obligations of al the
multilateral agreements. Governments are motivated to join not just to expand access to foreign
markets but also to spur domestic economic reforms, help transition to market economies, and
promote the rule of law.69 While any state or customs territory fully in control of its trade policy
may become a WTO member, a lengthy process of accession involves a series of documentation
of a country’s trade regime and market access negotiation requirements (see Figure 7).70
For example, Kazakhstan joined the WTO on November 30, 2015, after a 20-year process.
Afghanistan became the 164th WTO member on July 29, 2016, after nearly 12 years of
negotiating its accession terms. Other countries have initiated the process but face delays. Iran
first applied for membership in 1996 and, while it submitted its Memorandum on the Foreign
Trade Regime in 2009 (a prerequisite for negotiating an accession package), Iran has not begun
the bilateral negotiation process, and the United States is unlikely to support its accession.71
As the WTO general y operates by member consensus, any single member could block the
accession of a prospective new member. As part of the process, a prospective member must
satisfy specific market access conditions of other WTO members by negotiating on a bilateral
basis. The United States has been a central arbiter of the accession process for countries like
China (joined in 2001, see below), Vietnam (2007), and Russia (2012), with which permanent
normal trade relations had to be established concurrently under U.S. law for the United States to
receive the full benefits of their membership.

68 For the current status of accessions, see
69 Uri Dadush and Chiedu Osakwe, ed., WTO Accessions and Trade Multilateralism: Case Studies and Lessons from
the WTO at Twenty,
Cambridge University Press and the World T rade Organization, 2015.
70 For more information on WT O accessions, see and
71 Iran’s prospective membership is complicated by U.S. economic sanctions, which restrict trade and investment.
Iran’s accession to the WT O would require the United States and other members to extend MFN treatment to Iran.
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Figure 7. WTO Accession Process

Source: WTO. Created by CRS.
Note: The Working Party is a group of members negotiating multilateral y with a country applying to join.
China’s Accession and Membership
China formal y joined the WTO in December 2001.72 China has emerged as a major player in the
global economy, as the fastest-growing economy, largest merchandise exporter, and second-
largest merchandise importer worldwide. China’s accession into the WTO on commercial y
meaningful terms was a major U.S. trade objective during the late 1990s.Entry into the WTO was
viewed by many as an important catalyst for spurring additional economic and trade reforms and
the opening of China’s economy in a market, rules-based direction.73 These reforms have made
China an increasingly significant market for U.S. exporters, a central factor in global supply
chains, and a major source of low-cost goods for U.S. consumers. At the same time, China has yet
to fully transition to a market economy and the government continues to intervene in many parts
of the economy, which has created a growing debate over the role of the WTO in both respects.
Negotiations for China’s accession to the GATT and then the WTO began in 1986 and took more
than 15 years to complete. China sought to enter the WTO as a developing country, while U.S.
trade officials insisted that China’s entry had to be based on “commercial y meaningful terms”
that would require China to significantly reduce trade and investment barriers within a relatively
short time. In the end, a compromise was reached that required China to make immediate and
extensive reductions in various trade and investment barriers, while al owing it to maintain some
protection (or a transitional period of protection) for certain sensitive sectors (see text box).74

72 For more information, see CRS Report RL33536, China-U.S. Trade Issues, by Wayne M. Morrison.
73 Written testimony by Nicholas R. Lardy, “Issues in China’s WT O Accession,” May 9, 2001, Brookings Institution,
74 For more detail on the terms, see CRS Report RL33536, China-U.S. Trade Issues, by Wayne M. Morrison.
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Selected Terms of China’s 2001 WTO Accession

Reduce the average tariff for industrial goods from 17% to 8.9%, and average tariffs on U.S.
priority agricultural products from 31% to 14%.

Limit subsidies for agricultural production to 8.5% of the value of farm output, eliminate
export subsidies on agricultural exports, and regularly notify WTO of al state subsidies.

Grant full trade and distribution rights to foreign enterprises within three years (with some
exceptions, such as for certain agricultural products, minerals, and fuels).

Provide nondiscriminatory treatment to all WTO members, such as treating foreign firms
no less favorably than Chinese firms for trade purposes.

End discriminatory trade policies against foreign invested firms, such as domestic content
rules and technology transfer requirements.

Implement the TRIPS Agreement (which sets basic standards on IPR protection and rules for
enforcement) upon accession.

Fully open the banking system to foreign financial institutions within five years.

Allow joint ventures in insurance and telecommunications sectors (with various degrees of
foreign ownership al owed).
After joining the WTO, China began to implement economic reforms that facilitated its transition
toward a market economy and increased its openness to trade and foreign direct investment
(FDI). China also general y implemented its tariff cuts on schedule. However, by 2006, U.S.
officials and companies noted evidence of some trends toward a more restrictive trade regime and
more state intervention in the economy.75 In particular, observers have voiced concern about
various Chinese industrial policies, such as those that foster indigenous innovation based on
forced technology transfer, domestic subsidies, and IP theft. Some stakeholders have expressed
concerns over China’s mixed record of implementing certain WTO obligations and asserted that,
in some cases, China appeared to be abiding by the letter but not the “spirit” of the WTO.76
The United States and other WTO members have used dispute set lement (DS) procedures on a
number of occasions to address China’s al eged noncompliance with certain WTO commitments.
As a respondent, China accounts for about 12% of total WTO disputes since 2001. The United
States has brought 23 dispute cases against China at the WTO on issues, including IPR protection,
subsidies, and discriminatory industrial policies, and has largely prevailed in most cases. Though
some issues remain contested, China has largely complied with most WTO rulings.77 China has
also increasingly used DS to confront what it views as discriminatory measures; to date, it has
brought 16 cases against the United States (as of August 2020).
More broadly, the Trump Administration has questioned whether WTO rules are sufficient to
address the chal enges that China’s economy presents. USTR Lighthizer expressed this view in
remarks in September 2017: “The sheer scale of their coordinated efforts to develop their
economy, to subsidize, to create national champions, to force technology transfer, and to distort

75 See UST R, 2016 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance, January 2017, and the annual UST R National
Trade Estim ate Reports
for specific examples.
76 For example, see Written testimony by the U.S.-China Business Council, “China’s Implementation of its World
T rade Organization Commitments,” Submitted in response to the Office of the U.S. T rade Representative’s Request for
Comments and Notice of Public Hearing Concerning China’s Compliance with WT O Commitments, September 21,
2016; and Atkinson et al., Stopping China’s Mercantilism : A Doctrine of Constructive, Alliance-Backed Confrontation,
Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, March 16, 2017.
77 James Bacchus, Simon Lester, and Huan Zhu, “Disciplining China at the WT O,” CAT O Institute, Policy Analysis
No. 856, November 15, 2018.
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markets in China and throughout the world is a threat to the world trading system that is
unprecedented. Unfortunately, the World Trade Organization is not equipped to deal with this
problem.”78 USTR views efforts to resolve concerns over Chinese trade practices to date as
limited in effectiveness, including through WTO DS, as wel as recent proposals by WTO
members to craft new rules and WTO reforms.79 In its latest annual report to Congress on China’s
WTO compliance for 2019, USTR stated:
[The WTO DS] mechanism is not designed to address a trade regime that broadly conflicts
with the fundamental underpinnings of the WTO system. No amount of WTO DS by other
WTO members would be sufficient to remedy this systemic problem. Indeed, many of the
most harmful policies and practices being pursued by China are not even directly
disciplined by WTO rules.80
Another related U.S. concern is China’s claim that it is a “developing country” under the WTO,
and, in particular, implications for concessions under ongoing and future WTO negotiations.81
Through developing country status, which countries self-designate, countries are entitled to
certain rights under special and differential treatment (SDT), among other provisions in WTO
agreements (for more discussion, see “Treatment of Developing Countries” and text box). While
it is unclear the extent of SDT provisions China has sought in current ongoing negotiations, China
is a part of the coalition group of Asian developing members at the WTO and has claimed to be a
developing country in various fora.82 In the view of the Trump Administration, “the United States
has never accepted China’s claim to developing-country status,” and the WTO should change its
approach to affording flexibilities based on developing country status.83 (See “Treatment of
Developing Countries”.) Some Members of Congress also view this issue as a priority for WTO
reform in order to address what they perceive as China’s “predatory trade practices and abuse.”84
Chinese officials assert that despite being the world’s second-largest economy, China remains a
developing country, due to its relatively low GDP per capita and other economic chal enges.85
Concerns over China’s trade actions despite its WTO commitments have led the Trump
Administration to increase the use of unilateral mechanisms outside the WTO that in its view
more effectively address Chinese “unfair trade practices;” the recent Section 301 investigation of
Chinese IPR and technology transfer practices and resulting imposition of tariffs is evidence of

78 “U.S. T rade Policy Priorities: Robert Lighthizer, United States T rade Representative,” September 18, 2017, CSIS, -lighthizer-united-states-trade-representative.
79 See UST R, 2019 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance, March 2020.
80 Ibid, pp. 14-15.
81 See “U.S. Statement at the T rade Policy Review of the People’s Republic of China,” Statement as delivered by
Ambassador Dennis C. Shea on Behalf of the United States of America, July 11, 2018, Geneva.
82 In its June 2018 white paper “China and the World T rade Organization,” which reflects on its compliance with WT O
obligations and support for the multilateral trading system, China called itself the “largest developing country in the
world.” See
83 T he White House, “Memorandum on Reforming Developing-Country Status in the World T rade Organization,” July
26, 2019.
84 Rep. Darin LaHood and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, “Reforming China’s unfair practices at the WT O will level the
global playing field,” Op-ed, Washington Examiner, August 4, 2020.
85 “China remains largest developing country: economist,” Xinhua, April 15, 2018. As per the World Bank, China is
considered a developed country, though it is often distinguished as an “ emerging market.” However, based on World
Bank classifications of countries by income groupings, using gross national income (GNI) per capita, China is
considered an upper-middle income economy. See World Bank,
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this strategy.86 Prior to the establishment of the WTO, the United States resorted to Section 301
relatively frequently, in particular due to concerns that the GATT lacked an effective DS system.87
When the United States joined the WTO in 1995, it agreed to use the DS mechanism rather than
act unilateral y; many analysts contend that the United States has violated its WTO obligations by
imposing tariffs against China under Section 301. Following its investigation, the United States
also initiated a WTO DS case against China’s “discriminatory technology licensing” in 2018.
Subsequently, China filed its own complaints at the WTO over U.S. tariff actions (see above).
The United States has pursued cooperation to some extent with other countries with similar
concerns over Chinese non-market policies and practices, and the need to clarify and improve
WTO rules on industrial subsidies and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in particular.88 In
December 2017, the United States, EU, and Japan announced new trilateral efforts to cooperate
on issues related to government-supported excess capacity, unfair competition caused by market-
distorting subsidies and SOEs, forced technology transfer, and local content requirements.89 The
three officials have made advances toward a draft text on stronger rules on industrial subsidies;
however, talks appear to have make limited progress since mid-2019.90 (See “Competition with
SOEs and Non-Market Practices”.)
“Non-market oriented” policies and practices of China are a central driver of recent efforts. A
related WTO dispute involving China was poised to have significant implications for the
treatment of China’s economy under WTO rules, in particular the terms of China’s “nonmarket
economy” (NME) status under its WTO accession protocol.91 USTR Lighthizer described the
case as “the most serious litigation matter we have at the WTO” and that a decision in favor of
China would be “cataclysmic” for the WTO.92 Both the United States and EU continue to treat
China as a nonmarket economy in antidumping and countervailing duty proceedings, a point of
contention for China. Under its accession, China agreed to al ow WTO members to use
alternative methodologies, such as surrogate countries, for assessing prices and costs on products
subject to AD measures, amid their concerns that distortions in the Chinese economy caused by
government intervention result in Chinese prices that do not reflect market forces. China contends
that its WTO accession protocol requires al members to terminate use of the alternative
methodology by December 11, 2016. The NME distinction is important to China as it has often
resulted in higher AD margins on Chinese exports; moreover, a significant share of Chinese

86 CRS In Focus IF11346, Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, by Andres B. Schwarzenberg.
87 Chad P. Bown, “Rogue 301: T rump to Dust Off Another Outdated US T rade Laws,” Peterson Institute for
International Economics, August 3, 2017,
88 Some experts suggest that the United States should pursue a comprehensive, multilateral case at the WT O with a
broad coalition of countries sharing concerns about certain Chinese practices that either violate one or more specific
WT O commitments or that “nullify or impair” a benefit provided to WT O members (known as a non -violation claim
under Article XXIII of the GAT T ). See U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hearing on U.S.
Tools to Address Chinese Market Distortions
, written testimony of Jennifer Hillman, June 8, 2018.
89 UST R, “Joint Statement by the United States, European Unio n and Japan at MC11,” December 11, 2017.
90 UST R, “Joint Statement on T rilateral Meeting of the T rade Ministers of the United States, Japan, and the European
Union,” press release, May 31, 2018; and “Joint Statement of the Trilateral Meeting of the T rade Ministers,” press
release, January 9, 2019 and May 23, 2019.
91 Section 301 through 310 of the T rade Act of 1974, commonly called “Section 301,” is one of the principal statutory
means by which the United States addresses “unfair” foreign trade barriers to U.S. exports and enforces U.S. rights
under trade agreements. Section 301 applies to foreign acts, policies, and practices that UST R determines either
violates, or is inconsistent with, a trade agreement; or is “unjustifiable” and burdens or restricts U.S. trade.
92 David Lawder, “U.S. formally opposes China market economy status at the WT O,” Reuters, November 30, 2017.
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exports is subject to trade remedies.93 The United States and the EU have argued that the WTO
language is vague and did not automatical y obligate them to extend market economy status
(MES) to China because it is stil not a market economy.94
In December 2016, China requested consultations under WTO DS with the United States and EU
over the failure to grant China MES. In April 2017, a panel was established in the EU case. In
November 2017, the United States formal y submitted arguments as a third party in support of the
EU; China’s case involving the United States did not progress. The EU-China panel said it
expected to issue its final report during the second quarter of 2019.95 In May 2019, however,
China requested to suspend its dispute with the EU before the findings were issued.96
Current Status and Ongoing Negotiations
Buenos Aires Ministerial MC11, 2017
The last WTO Ministerial Conference (MC11) took place in December 2017, in Buenos Aires,
Argentina. After countries were unable to complete the Doha Round (see text box below), many
questioned what could effectively be achieved at MC11. WTO Director-General Azevêdo had
tempered expectations for major negotiated outcomes, acknowledging that “members’ positions
continue to diverge significantly on the substantial issues.”97 These differences were perhaps most
apparent by the inability of WTO members to reach consensus over a Ministerial Declaration,
largely due to staunch disagreements over including references to the mandate of the Doha Round
(see text box).98 Instead the Ministerial became primarily an opportunity for members to take
stock of ongoing talks and further define priority work areas.
Although WTO members worked intensively to build consensus over proposals in several areas,
MC11 did not result in major breakthroughs. WTO members committed to intensify negotiations
to reduce fisheries subsidies, “with a view to adopting” an agreement by the next Ministerial; the
United States has supported these efforts. A joint statement was issued by 60 members in support
of advancing multilateral negotiations on domestic regulations in services. Subsets of WTO
members also issued statements committing to new work programs or open-ended talks for
interested parties to potential y conclude plurilateral agreements in areas, including:99
E-commerce: among 84 WTO members, including the United States;
Investment facilitation: among 98 WTO members; and

93 Chad P. Bown, “ Should the United States Recognize China as a Market Economy?” Peterson Institute for
International Economics, December 2016.
94 T he expectation back in 2001 was that China would transition to a market economy within 15 years.
95 WT O, “DS516: European Union – Measures Related to Price Comparison Methodologies,”
96 Some speculate that this action was in anticipation of some findings that were not favorable to China. T om Miles,
“China pulls WT O suit over claim to be a market economy,” Reuters, June 17, 2019.
97 WT O, “DG Azevêdo details process for MC11 as preparations enter final stages,” November 28, 2017,
98 “MC11 expected to end without Ministerial declaration as U.S., India clash over language on development,” Inside
U.S. Trade
, December 13, 2017.
99 Number of countries in the talks reflects current participants, which expanded since the original announcemen ts.
WT O, “New initiatives on electronic commerce, investment facilitation and MSMEs,” December 13, 2017,
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Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises: among 90 WTO members.
The lack of concrete multilateral outcomes at MC11 was a reminder of the continued resistance of
some countries to a new agenda outside of the original 2001 Doha mandate. In the view of EU
Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, the Ministerial “laid bare the deficiencies of the
negotiating function at the WTO” and that “members are systematical y being blocked from
addressing the pressing realities of global trade.” Malmström blamed the lack of progress on
“procedural excuses and vetoes” and “cynical hostage taking.”100 Some developing country
members, including India, attempted to block multilateral progress in a range of areas absent
more progress on Doha issues, such as agricultural stockholding for food security. Such “hostage-
taking” tactics, widely acknowledged to have hindered progress in the Doha Round, further
highlight the difficulty of achieving future consensus among al 164 members.
In contrast, the United States general y viewed the Ministerial outcome positively—that it
signaled “the impasse at the WTO was broken,” paving the way for like-minded countries to
pursue new work in other areas.101 USTR expressed U.S. support in particular for forthcoming
work on e-commerce, scientific standards for agriculture, and disciplines on fisheries subsidies.

What Happened to the Doha Round
The Doha Round launched in November 2001, but after nearly two decades of negotiations, members did not
achieve its agenda. In the 2015 Ministerial Declaration, WTO members acknowledged their divisions over the
future of Doha and over reaffirming its continuation:
We recognize that many Members reaffirm the Doha Development Agenda (DDA), and the Declarations and
Decisions adopted at Doha and at the Ministerial Conferences held since then, and reaffirm their ful
commitment to conclude the DDA on that basis. Other Members do not reaffirm the Doha mandates, as they
believe new approaches are necessary to achieve meaningful outcomes in multilateral negotiations. Members
have different views on how to address the negotiations.

Put simply, the large and diverse membership of the WTO made consensus on the broad Doha mandate
difficult. At the root of the stalemate were persistent differences among the United States, EU, and developing
countries on major issues including agricultural market access, subsidies, industrial tariffs and nontariff barriers,
services, and trade remedies. Developing countries, including large emerging markets like China, Brazil, and
India, sought reduction of agricultural tariffs and subsidies by developed countries, nonreciprocal market access
for manufacturing sectors, and continued protection for services sectors. In contrast, developed country
members sought reciprocal trade liberalization, especial y commercial y meaningful market access in advanced
developing countries, while retaining protection for agriculture.
Procedural rigidities inherent in the WTO negotiating approach also complicated negotiations. In particular, the
“single undertaking” approach, which means “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” prevented progress
in select areas where consensus might be easier to achieve. However, some experts view a big package as the
best approach to securing major new trade liberalization where every member has to give and take.
Countries have disagreed about how to learn best from the perceived failure of Doha, leaving the path forward
unclear. In the view of former USTR Michael Froman, the “route forward is a new form of pragmatic
multilateralism. Moving beyond Doha does not mean leaving its unfinished business behind. Rather, it means
bringing new approaches to the table. Doha issues are too important to leave to the Doha architecture that has
failed for so long.” Recently, the EU, Canada, and others have put forward proposals to “modernize” the WT O.

100 European Commission, “EU Statement at the Heads of Delegations meeting,” Buenos Aires, Argentina, December
13, 2017,
101 UST R, “UST R Robert Lighthizer Statement on the Conclusion of the WT O Ministerial Conference,” press release,
December 2017.
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Outlook for MC12, 2021
The Ministerial general y convenes every two years to make decisions and announce progress on
multilateral trade agreements. With Kazakhstan as the host for MC12, members scheduled the
Ministerial for June 2020 in the expectation of more accommodating weather. Following the
mixed results of MC11, the United States and other WTO members had hoped MC12 would be
an action-forcing event to conclude key negotiations and make progress on multiple initiatives,
demonstrating the value of the WTO. MC12 was also to serve as a critical forum for taking stock
of various WTO reform proposals and the crisis in the DS system.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MC12 was postponed to 2021.102 During COVID-19, some
WTO activities have continued virtual y, including General Council meetings, and some in person
as wel , as limited staff returned to offices in May. But several negotiations stal ed as members
reevaluate whether it is viable and appropriate for talks to be conducted virtual y. The strategic
direction for MC12 wil be shaped by new leadership of the WTO Secretariat, following DG
Azevêdo’s announcement that he wil resign at the end of August 2020, a year before his term’s
end. Azevêdo resigned early to prevent the DG selection from coinciding with MC12, potential y
diverting political attention from achieving critical outcomes (see text box under “Policy Issues
and Future Direction”).
Selected Ongoing WTO Negotiations
Despite the postponement of the 2020 Ministerial, several countries continue to make progress on
some ongoing talks, including fisheries subsidies and e-commerce. In other areas, such as
agriculture and environmental goods, talks remain largely stal ed with no clear path forward. The
various states of talks raise the stakes for making progress at the rescheduled Ministerial in 2021.
For some issues, multilateral solutions arguably remain ideal, for example, disciplines on
agricultural subsidies, which are widely used by developed and advanced developing countries
alike. While the Doha Round largely did not achieve its comprehensive negotiating mandate to
lower agricultural tariffs and subsidies, negotiations more limited in scope have continued.103 The
2015 Nairobi Ministerial agreed to eliminate export subsidies for agriculture, but the issue of
public stockholding remains seemingly intractable. Public stockholding—otherwise known as
price support or supply control programs—is used by governments, especial y in developing
countries to purchase and stockpile food to bolster domestic farm prices by removing surplus
stocks from the market. Some governments may release portions of these government-owned
stocks to the public during periods of market volatility or shortage, but a major concern is that
some of these stocks may be exported at below their purchase price, thus acting as indirect export
subsidies. These programs can also become problematic when governments purchase food at a
price and quantity that effectively become trade-distorting domestic support.
Since the last Ministerial, working groups have met to seek convergence in the areas of domestic
support, market access, export competition, export prohibition/restrictions, public stockholding,
and cotton trade issues. With the postponement of MC12, members have exchanged views in

102 WT O, “ DG Azevêdo provides urgent information to WTO members on MC12 date and venue,” Press release,
March 12, 2020.
103 For more detailed analysis, see CRS Report R46456, Reforming the WTO Agreement on Agriculture, by Anita
Regmi, Nina M. Hart, and Randy Schnepf.
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writing on issues, including public stockholding and special safeguard mechanisms for
developing countries. Recognizing the potential social and economic impact of the COVID-19
pandemic, the chair of the Agriculture Committee plans to seek member feedback on the ongoing
negotiations in an effort to revitalize reform efforts in September 2020.104
As part of WTO reform efforts, the United States has also flagged the broader issue of
notifications and transparency, which has implications for agricultural trade reform. WTO
agreements require members to notify subsidies and trade-distorting support to ensure
transparency and consistency with a member’s obligation. Compliance with notifications has
been notoriously lax, with some countries years behind on their reporting. According to U.S.
Department of Agriculture trade counsel, Jason Hafemeister, these practices have consequences:
In the absence of transparency, how are we to determine whether Members are complying
with existing obligations? Moreover, only with comprehensive and current information can
negotiators understand, discuss, and address the problems that face farmers today: high
tariffs, trade distorting support, and non-tariff barriers.105
Some experts see a transparency agreement as a feasible outcome for an eventual MC12. The
United States and other countries are also raising issues of special and differential treatment in the
agriculture negotiations (see below).
Fisheries Subsidies
As noted above, WTO members committed to negotiate disciplines related to fisheries subsidies
that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing with a view toward reaching an agreement by
2020. The proposals aim to meet the goals outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14
targeting il egal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. Members have tabled proposals to:
 combat IUU fishing, overfishing, and overcapacity by prohibiting harmful
fishery subsidies,
 cap the total amount of fisheries subsidies,
 identify al eged maintenance of a prohibited subsidy by another member through
a consultation mechanism, and
 require greater transparency over fishing subsidies.106
Members had committed to finish negotiations on fisheries subsidies at MC12, an achievement
many view as critical to upholding the WTO’s legitimacy. With the cancel ation of in-person
meetings during the pandemic, the chair initial y attempted to continue talks, but halted them after
some parties voiced concerns about the virtual participation. The chair released a consolidated
text in June, which forms the basis for negotiations with four rounds planned for September
through the end of 2020, with the goal to conclude the agreement by year-end or by MC12.
The United States has emphasized notification requirements and the need for subsidy caps that
“can combine transparent and accountable policy space with serious constraints on major

104 WT O, “ WT O members appoint new chair for agriculture talks,” July 21, 2020,
105 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agriculture Service, “What’s Next for Agriculture in the WT O?” January
5, 2018, -s-next-agriculture-wto.
106 “New fisheries subsidies proposals considered ahead of December target for agreement,” WT O Press Release,
September 13, 2019,
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subsidizers.”107 The United States has sought application of the commitments to al countries,
while some developing country members have sought flexibilities in implementing
commitments.108 A recent U.S. executive order aims to increase enforcement and resources to
combat IUU fishing and promote domestic seafood production.109
Electronic Commerce/Digital Trade
Digital trade has emerged as a major force in world trade since the Uruguay Round, creating end
products (e.g., email or social media), enabling trade in services (e.g., consulting), and facilitating
goods trade through services, such as logistics and supply chain management that depend on
digital data flows. While the GATS contains explicit commitments for telecommunications and
financial services that underlie e-commerce, trade barriers related to digital trade, information
flows, and other related issues are not specifical y included. The WTO Work Program on
Electronic Commerce was established in 1998 to examine trade-related issues for e-commerce
under existing agreements.110 Under the work program, members agreed to continue a temporary
moratorium on e-commerce customs duties, and have renewed the moratorium at each ministerial
meeting. Members had extended the moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions
until MC12, but it is unclear if the extension wil be sustained after the delayed Ministerial, given
the opposition of some developing countries and lack of agreement on what would constitute the
scope of electronic transmissions.
Separate from the work program, at the 11th Ministerial, over 75 countries agreed to “initiate
exploratory work on negotiations on electronic commerce issues in the WTO.”111 After initial
talks, information exchanges and education, especial y targeting developing country members,
the United States and other parties formal y launched the e-commerce initiative in January
2019,112 and negotiations commenced in March 2019. Known as the Joint Statement Initiative on
E-commerce (JSI) and coordinated by Australia, Japan, and Singapore, the now 84 participants
are a mix of developed and developing countries and include the United States, EU, and China,
among others. As with the work program, some developing countries have opted not to participate
in the negotiations. For example, India and South Africa stated they do not want to accept
international constraints on efforts to protect their domestic industry or raise potential tariff
revenue on digital products, actions could be prohibited or curtailed under a new agreement.
Multiple negotiating parties submitted proposals outlining their positions and desired scope for
the negotiations.113 The United States was one of the first parties to submit a discussion paper.
The U.S. proposal includes “trade provisions that represent the highest standard in safeguarding
and promoting digital trade” and reflects the U.S. support for a market-driven, open, interoperable
internet under a multi-stakeholder system.114 The paper echoes many of the commitments

107 Hannah Monicken, “WTO to start fisheries text negotiations in fall; U.S. sees ‘missing pieces’,” Inside U.S. Trade,
July 21, 2020.
108 “WT O Polarized over Fisheries Subsidies,” Washington Trade Daily, July 2020.
109 White House, “ Executive Order on Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth ,” May 7,
110 WT O, “Electronic Commerce,”
111 Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce, WT O WT/MIN(17).60, December 13, 2017.
112 Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce, WT O WT/L/1056, January 25, 2019.
113 All proposals can be found on the WT O online documents portal:
114 United States, Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce, WT O INF/ECOM/23, April 26, 2019.
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contained in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which entered into force in July
2020. On the other hand, a proposal by China focuses on facilitating narrowly on e-commerce
and global value chains as a means to assist WTO members, especial y developing countries, in
benefiting from digital trade.115 Some proposals included digital trade facilitation measures (e.g.,
electronic single windows and interoperability, technology for customs risk management), but it
is unclear if these issues should be considered under the WTO Committee on Trade Facilitation
and implementation of the TFA.116
The plurilateral negotiations are happening within the WTO context as the parties aim to set a
new international standard that could eventual y become a multilateral agreement. With MC12’s
postponement, the parties are negotiating virtual y, as wel as through hybrid in-person/virtual
formats, al owing trade negotiators and subject matter experts to participate.
The parties recognize that there are some significant hurdles, including issues related to data
flows and privacy, but aim to have a consolidated text this year. A June 2020 statement by the
members of the so-cal ed Ottawa Group117 cal ed for “officials to prioritize and accelerate work
on the Joint Statement Initiative on E-commerce, including through informal and virtual
discussions, ahead of the rescheduled Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) in 2021, including
by the development of a consolidated negotiating text by the end of 2020 at the latest.”118 While
not a member of the group, the United States is reportedly in agreement with the goal of
completion of a streamlined text by the end of the year.119
Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA)
The EGA negotiations were initiated in mid-2014 to liberalize trade in environmental goods
through tariff liberalization. The original 14 participants, including the United States, the EU, and
China, represented nearly 90% of global trade in covered environmental goods;120 talks have
since expanded to include 18 WTO members. Like the ITA, the EGA would be an open
plurilateral agreement so that the benefits achieved through negotiations would be extended on an
MFN basis to al WTO members. Despite 18 rounds of negotiations, members were unable to
conclude the agreement by the meeting of the General Council in December 2016, and no
negotiations have taken place since. Several stakeholders blamed China for the lack of progress,
as it rejected the list of products to be included and requested lengthy tariff phaseout periods
which other countries refused to accept.121 The EGA’s future remains uncertain; while several
countries have expressed support for resuming talks, the Trump Administration has not put
forward a public position on the agreement.122

115 China, Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce, WT O INF/ECOM/19, April 23, 2019.
116 T he T rade Facilitation Committee was created on 22 February 2017 when the T rade Facilitation Agreement (T FA)
entered into force. For more information, see
117 Ottawa Group members include Canada, Australia, Brazil, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, N ew
Zealand, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, and Switzerland.
118 Government of Canada, “ June 2020 Statement of the Ottawa Group: Focusing Action on Covid-19,” June 15, 2020,
119 “U.S. Urges Speed in E-Commerce T alks,” Washington Trade Daily, June 15, 2020.
120 WT O, “ Azevêdo welcomes launch of plurilateral environmental goods negotiations,” July 8, 2014.
121 “EU blames China for WT O environmental trade talks collapse,” Reuters, December 4, 2016; “Key Lawmaker, EU
and industry all blame China for torpedoing EGA deal,” Inside U.S. Trade, December 7, 2016.
122 “U.S. remains silent as WT O members look for ways to resume EGA talks,” Inside U.S. Trade, June 22, 2017.
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Policy Issues and Future Direction
The inability of WTO members to conclude a comprehensive agreement during the Doha Round
raised new questions about the WTO’s future direction. Many intractable issues from Doha
remain unresolved, and members have yet to reach consensus on a way forward. Persistent
differences about the extent and balance of trade liberalization continue to limit progress, as
indicated by the outcomes of recent ministerial meetings. Further, members remain divided over
adopting new issues on the agenda, amid concerns that the WTO could lose relevance if its rules
are not updated to reflect the modern global economy. Some WTO members seek to incorporate
new issues that pose chal enges to the trading system, such as digital trade, competition with
SOEs, global supply chains, and the relationship between trade and environment issues.
These divisions have cal ed into question the viability of the “single undertaking,” or one-package
approach in future multilateral negotiations and suggest broader need for institutional reform if
the WTO is to remain a relevant negotiating body. Moreover, the consistent practice of some
countries like India to block discussion of new issues serves as a reminder of the power of a
single member to halt progress in the WTO’s consensus-based system.
As a result of slow progress at the WTO, countries have increasingly turned to other venues to
advance trade liberalization and rules, namely plurilateral agreements and preferential FTAs
outside the WTO. Plurilaterals have been seen as having the potential to resurrect the WTO’s
relevance as a negotiating body, but have also been seen as possibly undermining multilateralism,
if the agreements are not extended to al WTO members on an MFN basis. Regional trade
agreements have also been seen as potential laboratories for new rules. How these negotiations
and agreements wil ultimately affect the WTO’s status as the preeminent global trade institution
is widely debated.
The fundamental longstanding chal enges facing the WTO are compounded by recent
developments that have further strained the trading system. In the near-term, COVID-19 has
highlighted serious economic and trade policy chal enges, in addition to the health crisis, and has
spurred protectionist trade and investment policies and disruptions to supply chains that may have
lasting effects.123 Many observers have cal ed for better global coordination in policy responses,
with some advocating for a new WTO plurilateral agreement on medical goods. Whether the
WTO is equipped to play a meaningful role in the crisis is also tied to broader questions about the
need for systemic reform of the institution. As Deputy DG Alan Wolff posited in May 2020:124
In the current upsurge in criticism of the inadequacies of the collective res ponses to the
pandemic, the WTO is receiving heightened scrutiny. Were the WTO Members to join
together to meet the trade challenges of the coronavirus and the desperately needed
economic recovery, most public criticisms of the WTO would likely disappear. But the
problems preceded the pandemic and will, absent reforms, persist after the pandemic is
over and its after-effects have been addressed. It is necessary to understand what values the
multilateral trading system is designed to promote before it can be reformed.
Prior to the crisis, concerns were already mounting about the growing use of trade protectionist
policies by both developed and developing countries, recent U.S. unilateral tariff actions and

123 See for example, OECD, COVID-19 and International Trade: Issues and Actions, June 12, 2020,;
Chad P. Bown, “COVID-19 Could Bring Down the T rading System: How to Stop Protectionism From Running
Amok,” Foreign Affairs, April 28, 2020,
124 WT O, “ DDG Wolff: T his is the time to consider the future of the multilateral trading system ,” May 27, 2020.
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counterretaliation by other countries, and escalating trade disputes between major economies.
Many countries are questioning whether the WTO is equipped to effectively handle the
chal enges of emerging markets like China, where the state may play a central role in
international trade, as wel as the deepening trade tensions between major economic players.
Some experts view the multilateral trading system as facing a potential crisis, while others remain
optimistic that the current state of affairs could spur renewed focus on reforms of the system.
WTO members, including the EU, Canada, Japan, and the United States, are exploring areas for
reform and have submitted various proposals.
New WTO leadership wil face ushering the trading system through these chal enges. WTO
members are currently in the process of selecting a new DG among eight candidates (see text
). The process requires al 164 members to agree by consensus on the appointment. WTO
members and observers view the outcome of the DG race and fresh leadership as important to
inject new momentum into the institution, amid efforts to increase its relevance and chart a path
forward. The WTO has expedited the intensive selection process, usual y lasting nine months, to
conclude possibly by early November, after Azevêdo steps down and following the U.S.
presidential election.125
Selection of WTO Director-General
Notwithstanding the lack of formal power of the WTO Secretariat, the DG is an advocate for the global trading
system and often wields “soft power,” relying on diplomatic and political heft in helping members build consensus
or break stalemates—an increasingly difficult task in recent years.126 As a result, some have argued that the
Secretariat should be granted more authority to table proposals and advance new rules.127
In the current DG race, analysts have variously cal ed for an “honest broker” and dealmaker, politician over
technocrat, or a “peacekeeper.” DG qualifications broadly include “extensive experience in international relations,
encompassing economic, trade and/or political experience; a firm commitment to the work and objectives of the
WTO; proven leadership and managerial ability; and demonstrated communication skil s.”128 The eight candidates
in 2020 have a breadth of experience (Table 4). A recent survey suggests management and political experience,
economics training, and WTO negotiating experience are preferred characteristics.129 Experts speculated at the
onset that Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Kenya’s Amina Mohamed lead the field.130
WTO DG appointments general y have alternated between developing and developed countries, and have hailed
from al regions except Africa, the Middle East, and North America—regions home to five current candidates.
With Azevêdo from Brazil, some developed countries view it as their moment, while African countries strongly
argue it is their turn. No female has ever served as DG, and some are cal ing for a change to the status quo.
Candidates have emphasized that regardless of these factors, the person most qualified for the position should be
chosen. Some have highlighted their political neutrality for managing differences between the United States and
China as advantages to their candidacy.

125 Members were unable to agree on which deputy DG would serve as acting DG at the end of August until the
selection process concludes, attributed to disagreements between the U.S. and China. “U.S. official: China blocked
acting DG compromise at WT O,” Inside U.S. Trade, July 30, 2020.
126 David T inline and T atiana Lacerda Prazeres, “5 reasons why the role of WT O Director -General matters,” World
Economic Forum, June 5, 2020,
127 Doug Palmer, “U.S. dismisses ‘invalid’ WT O Appellate Body ruling,” Politico Pro Trade, April 23, 2020.
128 WT O, Procedures for the Appointment of Director-Generals, WT /L/509, January 20, 2003.
129 Fiorinia et al., “Selecting the next WT O Director-General: What the trade community thinks,” VoxEU, July 8, 2020, -trade-community-thinks.
130 Jim Brunsden and Alan Bettie, “Kenyan and Nigerian candidates lead field for WT O chief,” Financial Times, July
8, 2020.
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Table 4. WTO DG Candidates
Candidate (by order of

Background and Key Positions
Jesús Seade Kuri

Foreign Affairs Under Secretary for North

Former Deputy DG of the WTO

Former Deputy DG of the GATT
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Former Finance Minister

Former Managing Director World Bank
Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh

Senior Counsel, King & Spalding LLP

Former WTO official
Tudor Ulianovschi

Former Foreign Minister

Former Ambassador to WTO
Yoo Myung-hee
South Korea

Trade Minister
Amina C. Mohamed

Secretary for Sports, Culture and Heritage

Former Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister;
Chair of 2015 WTO Ministerial Conference

Former Deputy Secretary-General United
Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri
Saudi Arabia

Royal Court Adviser

Former Economy and Planning Minister

Former Banking Executive
Liam Fox
United Kingdom

Former Trade Secretary
Source: WTO, “Candidates for DG selection process 2020,”
DG candidates met (primarily virtual y) with WTO members from July 15-17 to present views and answer
questions.131 This campaign phase, expected to last through September 7, is fol owed by consultations among
members over two months to narrow the field and build consensus around a candidate (two candidates are to be
eliminated in the first round and three candidates in the second round, leaving two for the final selection). A
selection committee, headed by the GC Chair, leads this process. The committee then issues its recommendation
on the candidate most likely to gain consensus, and members make their final decision.132
Regarding ideal qualities for a DG, in testimony to Congress USTR Lighthizer cal ed for leadership that supports
fundamental, across the-board reform and understands the nature of problems facing market economies in dealing
with China and current rules that fail to discipline large state-run economies.133 He noted that any “whiff of anti-
Americanism” would be grounds for a U.S. veto.
COVID-19 and WTO Reactions
As countries across the world grapple with COVID-19, many WTO activities have been disrupted
and trade policy chal enges have emerged. Experts have emphasized trade policies as playing a
major role in two respects. First in helping respond to COVID-19 and second, in assisting in the
recovery. The WTO committed to work with other international organizations to minimize
disruptions to cross-border trade and global supply chains—in particular those central to
combatting the virus. The WTO has also sought to inform members of the impact of the
pandemic, and cal ed on members to abide by notification obligations on trade-related measures

131 For candidates statements, see
132 In the (rare) absence of consensus, procedures specify that as a last resort there can be recourse to other voting
133 House Ways and Means Committee, Hearing on the President’s 2020 Trade Policy Agenda, written testimony by
Ambassador Robert E. Lighthizer, June 17, 2020.
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taken in response. Many countries, including the United States, have imposed temporary
restrictions on exports of certain medical goods and some foodstuffs to mitigate potential
shortages.134 At the same time, some countries have since lifted restrictions or implemented
measures to liberalize trade.135 A WTO report in April 2020 warned of the policies’ long-term
costs, in terms of lower supply and higher prices.136 WTO leadership urged careful consideration
of ripple effects of export curbs, as most major countries are both exporters and importers of
medical supplies, and emphasized use of WTO-consistent tools to address critical shortages, such
as unilateral y eliminating tariffs or other taxes, expediting customs procedures, and using
subsidies to generate production. In April, the WTO estimated a plunge in global trade in 2020,
with a potential recovery in 2021 dependent on the duration of the pandemic and countries’ policy
choices.137 For the latter, transparency is viewed as critical y important; however, members have
been slow to formal y notify new measures.138
WTO agreements are flexible in permitting emergency measures related to national security or
health that may contravene WTO obligations. They broadly require, however, that such
restrictions be targeted, temporary, and transparent, and do not unnecessarily restrict trade. GATT
Article XI prohibits export bans and restrictions, other than duties, taxes or other charges, but
al ows members to apply restrictions temporarily “to prevent or relieve critical shortages of
foodstuffs or other products essential” to the exporting country, among other circumstances. In
the case of foodstuffs, members must give “due consideration to the effects on food security” of
importers. As previously discussed, general exceptions providing policy flexibility require that
restrictions are not “a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination,” or “disguised restriction
on international trade,” among other conditions.
Several WTO agreements have relevance to health-related policy, such as TBT, SPS, GATS and
TRIPS. Others guide implementation of policies, including the WTO’s core principle of
nondiscrimination and rules on subsidies. Specific commitments have contributed to liberalized
trade in medical products: (1) tariff negotiations during the Uruguay Round; (2) a plurilateral
Agreement on Pharmaceutical Products, updated in 2011; and (3) the expanded ITA in 2015.
These have improved market access for medical products, but barriers remain. An April 2020
WTO report estimates nearly $600 bil ion in annual trade in critical medical products with limited
availability during COVID-19.139 For these products, the average applied MFN tariff is 4.8%, but
certain products, such as hand soap and face masks, have relatively high tariffs in some countries.
As measures to restrict trade spread in early 2020, some countries including the G-20
recommitted to WTO guidance that measures be targeted, temporary, and transparent. A group of
seven countries led by New Zealand and Singapore issued stronger statements to maintain open
and connected supply chains.140 Forty-two WTO members pledged to lift emergency measures as
soon as possible; the United States, EU, and China did not join the pledge. Experts have

134 CRS In Focus IF11551, Export Restrictions in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, by Christopher A. Casey and
Cathleen D. Cimino-Isaacs.
135 WT O, “ WT O report on G20 shows moves to facilitate imports even as trade restrictions remain widespread,” June
29, 2020,
136 WT O, Export Prohibitions and Restrictions, Information Note, April 23, 2020.
137 WT O, “T rade falls steeply in first half of 2020,” Press Release, June 22, 2020,
138 WT O, “COVID-19 and world trade,”
139 WT O, Trade in Medical Goods in the Context of Tackling COVID-19, Information Note, April 3, 2020.
140 See
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advocated for more coordinated trade policies worldwide or concrete action in the WTO.141 In
June, the Ottawa Group recommended a range of actions, with a central role for the WTO:142
In response to these challenges, thinking has begun on trade policy actions that would
support an inclusive, sustainable, and resilient recovery as well as what trade rules should
be adapted or developed to guide collaborative policy responses to future global crises. In
this context, the WTO must play an important role in helping ensure coordination and
coherence between actions its members take. This will require initiative and engagement
by WTO members in order to be successful.
Some WTO members advocate for a plurilateral agreement on medical goods, modeled after the
ITA. Other members acknowledge that there is neither time nor political wil to conclude a round
of tariff negotiations in the near term, but advocate for unilateral reductions. New Zealand and
Singapore recently agreed to an “open plurilateral” agreement to remove tariffs, not to impose
export restrictions, and to remove nontariff barriers on COVID-19 related products.143 The two
countries have encouraged others to join. U.S. trade officials have said they prioritize dealing
with the crisis before discussing the WTO role.144 Per USTR Lighthizer remarks in May to G20
trade ministers: “while we are in the midst of the crisis, we caution against embarking upon new
plurilateral tariff cutting negotiations, or trying to dictate what the future role of the WTO may be
in terms of addressing longer-term actions. Indeed, we find it inappropriate to use this crisis,
which has been tragic for the global community, to push other agendas.”
Negotiating Approaches
Plurilateral Agreements
In contrast to the consensus-based agreements of the WTO, some members, including the United
States, point to the progress made in sectoral or plurilateral settings as the way forward for the
institution. By assembling coalitions of interested parties, negotiators may more easily and
quickly achieve trade liberalizing objectives, as shown by the ITA. Sectoral agreements are
viewed as one way to pursue new agreements and extend WTO disciplines and commitments in
new areas, including, for example, U.S. trade priorities in digital trade and SOEs. The
commitments by some WTO members to pursue talks in e-commerce, investment facilitation,
SMEs and other areas, could plant the seeds for future plurilaterals.
Plurilateral negotiations, however, stil involve resolving divisions among developed and
advanced developing countries. Members were able ultimately to overcome their differences in
the ITA negotiation, but thus far have been unable to reach consensus in the EGA. At the same
time, the participation of developing and emerging market economies, such as China and India, is

141 For example, see Richard E. Baldwin and Simon J. Evenett ed., COVID-19 and Trade Policy: Why Turning Inward
Won’t Work
, Centre for Economic Policy Research, April 2020; Wendy Cutler, “Coronavirus: T he Need to Adjust and
Reshape Our T rade Agenda,” March 17, 2020,
reshape-our-trade-agenda; Jennifer Hillman, “ Six Proactive Steps in a Smart T rade Approach to Fighting COVID-19,”
Think Global Health, March 20, 2020,
approach-fighting-covid-19; and Anabel Gonzalez, “ A memo to trade ministers on how trade policy can help fight
COVID-19,” T rade and Investment Policy Watch blog, -policy-
142 Government of Canada, “ June 2020 Statement of the Ottawa Group: Focusing Action on Covid-19,” June 15, 2020,
143 See
144 “U.S.: Wait until crisis subsides to address WT O’s role,” Inside U.S. Trade, May 15, 2020.
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critical to achieving agreements that cover a meaningful share of global trade. There is also a
concern that plurilateral agreements not applied on an MFN basis could lead nonparticipating
countries to become marginalized from the trading system and face new trade restrictions. To
attract a critical mass of participants and lower barriers for developing countries and LDCs who
may be hesitant to agree to ambitious commitments, agreements could al ow flexibility in
implementation timeframes and provide additional assistance, as in the TFA.
Some experts question whether potential waning U.S. leadership in plurilateral and multilateral
trade negotiations might slow momentum toward concluding new agreements (see “Value of the
Multilateral System and U.S. Leadership and Membership”). The Trump Administration has yet
to clarify its position on plurilaterals pursued under the Obama Administration, such as EGA and
TiSA, which have stal ed, but is supporting new efforts on e-commerce/digital trade.
Preferential Free Trade Agreements
Given that the WTO al ows its members to establish preferential FTAs outside the WTO that are
consistent with WTO rules, many countries have formed bilateral or regional FTAs and customs
areas; since 1990, the number of RTAs in force has increased seven-fold, with around 300
agreements notified to the WTO and in force.145 FTAs have often provided more negotiating
flexibility for countries to advance new trade liberalization and rulemaking that builds on WTO
agreements; however, the agreements vary widely in terms of scope and depth. Like plurilaterals,
many view comprehensive FTAs as having potential for advancing the global trade agenda.
However, like plurilaterals, FTAs can also have downsides compared to multilateral deals.
The United States currently has 14 FTAs in force with 20 countries, with some new partial
agreements completed or in progress. The Trump Administration has stated a preference for
negotiating bilateral FTAs, rather than multiparty agreements. In October 2019, the United States
and Japan signed the “first stage” of trade agreements covering certain agricultural and industrial
goods market access, as wel as rules on digital trade—the agreements did not require
congressional approval.146 In January 2020, Congress approved the USMCA between the United
States, Mexico, and Canada, which replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA).147 In addition, USTR notified Congress of trade negotiations with the EU, the UK, and
most recently, Kenya.
In general, U.S. FTAs are considered to be “WTO-plus” in that they reaffirm the WTO
agreements, but also eliminate most tariff and nontariff barriers and contain rules and obligations
in areas not covered by the WTO. For example, most U.S. FTAs include access to services
markets beyond what is contained in the GATS or, more recently, digital trade obligations and
disciplines to address distortions from state-led trade practices. The recent U.S. limited
agreements with Japan, however, represent a significant shift in approach from recent U.S. FTAs,
which typical y involve one comprehensive negotiation and agenda. Several analysts question the
extent to which the stage-one agreement adheres to GATT Article XXIV, requiring that FTAs

145 As of the end of 2019. WT O RT A database,
146 White House, “Joint Statement of the United States and Japan,” September 25, 2019.
briefings-statements/joint -statement-united-states-japan-2/; UST R, “ FACT SHEET : U.S.-Japan T rade Agreement,”
September 2019, -sheet -us-japan-
trade-agreement .
147 CRS In Focus IF10997, U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) Trade Agreement, by M. Angeles Villarreal and Ian F.
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