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Last year, I released this video to help explain why the World Trade Organization has been a good deal for the United States.

My argument was – and still is – very straightforward, and it’s based on two simple propositions.

  1. Free trade is good because societies are more prosperous with free markets and open competition.
  2. The WTO has helped nations move in that direction by reducing import taxes and other trade barriers.

This outcome is particularly beneficial for the United States since other countries tend to be more protectionist.

But not everyone agrees with this position.

President Trump is a notorious critic of the WTO, for instance, which isn’t surprising since he doesn’t understand trade.

There are also plenty of opponents on the left, which also isn’t surprising since they don’t like capitalism and competition.

What is somewhat surprising, however, is that some Republican lawmakers also have decided to oppose the WTO.

In a column last week for the New York Times, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri actually argued that it’s time to get rid of the World Trade Organization. Here’s his argument against the Geneva-based body.

The global economic system as we know it is a relic; it requires reform, top to bottom. We should begin with one of its leading institutions, the World Trade Organization. We should abolish it. …Its mandate was to promote free trade, but the organization instead allowed some nations to maintain trade barriers and protectionist workarounds, like China, while preventing others from defending themselves, like the United States. …Meanwhile, the W.T.O. required American workers to compete against Chinese forced labor but did next to nothing to stop Chinese theft of American intellectual property and products. …too many jobs left America’s borders for elsewhere. As factories closed, workers suffered, from small towns to the urban core. …Enough is enough. The W.T.O. should be abolished, and along with it, the new model global economy. The quest to turn the world into a liberal order of democracies was always misguided.

And here’s what he wants as a replacement.

The only sure way to confront the single greatest threat to American security in the 21st century, Chinese imperialism, is to rebuild the U.S. economy and to build up the American worker. And that means reforming the global economic system. …The United States must seek new arrangements and new rules, in concert with other free nations, to restore America’s economic sovereignty and allow this country to practice again the capitalism that made it strong. …For nearly 50 years before the W.T.O.’s founding, the United States and its allies maintained a network of reciprocal trade that protected our national interests and the nation’s workers. We can do it again …It means striking trade deals that are truly mutual and truly beneficial for America and walking away when they are not. It means building a new network of trusted friends and partners to resist Chinese economic imperialism.

Since Hawley doesn’t seem to appreciate the benefits of trade, the simple approach would be to criticize him for wanting politicians and bureaucrats to have the power to interfere with voluntary exchange across borders.

Such criticism is warranted, of course, but I want to take this opportunity to make four points about how there may be hope for the future.

1. Hawley is actually endorsing the status quo. After World War II, the US took the lead in creating the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT), a multilateral system of agreements which produced successive rounds of trade liberalization. The US then took the lead in creating the WTO so there would be a system (dispute resolution) to encourage nations to comply with their GATT commitments. But the dispute resolution process is now toothless because there are no longer enough judges for the system to operate (Trump has blocked the appointment of new judges). For all intents and purposes, the world is now operating under the pre-WTO rules – which seems to be what Hawley is calling for in his column.

2. The WTO no longer is a vehicle for global trade liberalization. The WTO is a consensus-based organization, which means unanimity is required for additional GATT-style reductions in global trade barriers. But since membership has expanded to include a number of countries with a protectionist mindset (most notably India, but China and Brazil also are a problem), it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see another multilateral agreement for additional tariff reductions. This doesn’t change the fact that GATT was a big past success, and it doesn’t change the fact that it would be nice if the WTO’s dispute-resolution mechanism was back in operation. It simply means that we won’t be able to build on that progress.

3. Hawley is also endorsing, practically speaking, the best path forward. Another round of multilateral trade liberalization is off the table, but that doesn’t prevent nations from moving forward with bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs are consistent with WTO rules). Interestingly, Hawley seems to support that approach. The U.S. already has nearly 20 of these pacts and is engaged in major negotiations with the United Kingdom for a new FTA that hopefully will be a template for future FTAs with other market-friendly nations.

4. Beware of the regulatory-harmonization wolf in FTA clothes. While bilateral trade pacts are desirable, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print. The European Union wants to hijack FTAs and make them vehicles for regulatory harmonization (meaning other nations have to agree to the EU’s onerous approach to red tape). If the goal is to have more trade, more competition, and more dynamism, the United States and other pro-market countries should make “mutual recognition” the foundation of future free-trade pacts.

The bottom line is that Hawley is wrong about the WTO, but he may actually be right about the best way of achieving future trade liberalization. Assuming, of course, that he actually means what he wrote about striking new deals.

In an ideal world, needless to say, these new bilateral FTAs (or even multi-nation FTAs) should be in addition to the WTO.

P.S. An under-appreciated aspect of the WTO is that it gives nations like the US a more-effective way of pressuring China to eliminate subsidies and other trade-distorting practices.

P.P.S. I’m normally very skeptical of international organizations. But the WTO encourages globalization rather than global governance, a key distinction.

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Earlier this year, I shared a short video about the benefits of the World Trade Organization.

Here’s a more substantive version (though still only four minutes).

I wanted to keep the video short, so I focused primarily on how the United States disproportionately benefits because other nations are pressured to reduce their trade taxes down to American levels.

Though I also pointed out that all countries benefit as global trade increases.

This is particularly relevant when you ponder President Trump’s trade spat with China. Yes, it would be good for the United States if China liberalized its economy and got rid of its mercantilist policies.

But it also would be good for China.

That’s why free trade is a good idea. It’s good if it’s unilateral free trade. It’s good if it’s bilateral free trade. And it’s good if it’s multilateral free trade.

Since we’re discussing the WTO, let’s look at some scholarly evidence.

An article by three Stanford political scientists for International Organization finds that the WTO has been beneficial for global trade.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been touted as premier examples of international institutions, but few studies have offered empirical proof. This article comprehensively evaluates the effects of the GATT/WTO and other trade agreements since World War II. Our analysis is organized around two factors: institutional standing and institutional embeddedness. We show that many countries had rights and obligations, or institutional standing, in the GATT/WTO even though they were not formal members of the agreement. We also expand the analysis to include a range of other commercial agreements that were embedded with the GATT/WTO. Using data on dyadic trade since 1946, we demonstrate that the GATT/WTO substantially increased trade for countries with institutional standing, and that other embedded agreements had similarly positive effects. Moreover, our evidence suggests that international trade agreements have complemented, rather than undercut, each other.

Meanwhile, a French think tank looks at some of the evidence in favor of the WTO’s rules-based approach to reducing trade taxes.

…the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which held a dominant position after WWII with its multilateral rules has lost influence…. From the point of view of a consumer or producer, the higher volatility of trade policy is nothing positive. …Handely and Limao (2015), Handley (2014), Pelc (2013) as well as Bacchetta and Piermartini (2011) also find empirical support for welfare gains from a rules compliant trade policy. …After WWII the average level of tariffs decreased constantly and predictably as part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and its successor the WTO, which are based on member commitment and reciprocity. …multilateral agreements such as the WTO offer mechanisms which provide incentives even for mercantilist politicians to reduce barriers of trade.

Here’s a chart from the study, which shows how trade taxes have been falling in the post-World War II era.

In other words, the WTO process has been successful. President Trump’s tactic of escalating tariffs, by contrast, has not worked.

By way of background, the WTO is actually nothing more than a dispute-resolution forum for the GATT system (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) that was created back in the late 1940s.

And, unlike the International Monetary Fund or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, this is a part of the “post-war order” that’s worth preserving.

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At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not a fan of international bureaucracies. The International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are the worst multilateral institutions because of their promotion of bad policy, but I’ve also gone after the United Nations and World Bank for their periodic efforts to advance statism.

But this doesn’t mean I’m reflexively against international organizations. My criticisms of the IMF, OECD, UN, and WB are solely a function of their work to empower governments at the expense of people.

And this is why I generally like the World Trade Organization. The WTO is a Geneva-based international bureaucracy, but its mission is to empower people at the expense of governments by reducing import taxes and other trade barriers.

Which explains why I think President Trump will be making a mistake if he imposes unilateral tariffs on China. Yes, there seems to be strong evidence that China’s government is misbehaving, but I think that a positive outcome is far more likely if the U.S. government takes the issue before the WTO. Which is what I said in this short interview with Neil Cavuto.

And I’m not alone.

Bloomberg editorialized recently about this issue.

President Donald Trump…is…addressing a legitimate trade dispute: China’s alleged theft of intellectual property and forced technology transfers. …the U.S. alleges — with reason — that China has been stealing U.S. trade secrets, forcing American companies to hand over proprietary technology as a condition of doing business on the mainland, and providing state support for Chinese firms to acquire critical technology abroad. …Yet unilateral blanket tariffs of the sort the administration is considering are the wrong answer. In the first instance, they’d hurt U.S. consumers and producers even if they didn’t provoke retaliation (which they probably would). They’d undermine the World Trade Organization’s dispute-resolution system, perhaps fatally.

And the editorial points out that the WTO is a better place to settle the dispute.

…one can question the WTO’s effectiveness in resolving disputes of this kind: The process moves slowly. On the other hand, it works. The U.S. has won the great majority of the cases it’s taken there. The complaint against China’s practices would be stronger if it was coordinated with other governments. Japan and the European Union share U.S. concerns and would be willing to cooperate. As recently as last month, this seemed to be the strategy. …the U.S. needs to take the lead, once more, in global economic statecraft. Champion the rules-based order that has served the country and the world so well. Strengthen the WTO, don’t subvert it.

And the Wall Street Journal opined today on this topic.

…there’s no denying that Beijing’s mercantilism has fueled the political backlash against free trade. China’s increasingly predatory behavior, especially intellectual-property theft, poses a particular problem to a sustainable trading system. The question is how to respond in a way that encourages better Chinese behavior without harming the global economy and American companies and workers. …the danger is a tariff tit-for-tat that harms everyone. …Beijing is more likely to respond in kind at such a broad public assault on its goods.

The WSJ notes that China’s behavior has left something to be desired.

Beijing has turned to mercantilism over the last decade. …The government gives subsidies in several forms, including loans from state-owned banks on easy terms and low interest rates. …Along with subsidies and government help in acquiring foreign companies, the policy explicitly requires foreign companies to transfer intellectual property in return for access to the Chinese market. …Beijing has also stepped up its use of regulations to discriminate against foreign companies. …All of these policies violate WTO agreements. …The China problem now is the predatory use of government power to punish foreign competitors to benefit Chinese companies.

The WSJ doesn’t necessarily think the WTO is the right vehicle to respond, but it definitely supports a plurilateral approach.

…remedies should be based on the principle of reciprocity. If Beijing pressures multinational car companies to build electric cars in China, the U.S., EU and Japan could impose a tariff on Chinese-made vehicles and restrict the transfer of related technology. This would avoid the Trump Administration’s approach of tariffs on a wide variety of goods, a policy that alienates allies and raises the risk of a wider trade war. A targeted approach…could even strengthen the WTO as China would have an interest in modernizing and using the organization’s courts to resolve the disputes.

I’m a fiscal wonk rather than a trade wonk, so I’m open to the notion that perhaps a plurilateral approach is better than the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanism.

Though it’s worth noting that the United States has a very high batting average when bringing cases to the WTO.

Dan Ikenson, director of Cato’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, reviewed WTO trade disputes involving the U.S. from 1995 to March of this year. He found that the U.S. prevailed in 91 percent of cases that it brought against other countries. “When the United States has been a complainant (as it has in 114 of 522 WTO disputes over 22 years — more than any other WTO member) it has prevailed on 91 percent of adjudicated issues,” he wrote.

I’ll close by noting that China’s bad policies don’t make it an enemy. The European Union is a semi-protectionist bloc and it isn’t our enemy either.

My goal is to simply point out that China’s approach to trade can be improved and should be improved. And since the country has moved in the right direction on overall economic policy (with very positive effects for the Chinese people), my hope is that coordinated opposition to Chinese mercantilism will have a positive effect.

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