When the signing of the Havana Charter in 1948 initiated the International Trade Organization(later named the World Trade Organization, or WTO), the die was cast for an international negotiation forum and process.
Centre William Rappard became secretariat for one of the most successful international institutions in the world. The edifice in Geneva remained tightly targeted on trade and investment zones, and achieved real global change, particularly in its tariff reduction negotiations. These lower tariffs led to lower prices, better products and more choice. They have made the organization, in spite of its government constituency, the pre-eminent glorious knight battling on behalf of consumers.
All of that began to change in the past two decades. Success attracted allies. The number of WTO members rose from 27 nations in 1948, to 123 in 1994 to 162 today. For decisions, the WTO still uses a consensus-based system, which means that every member gets to vote and that all votes have to be unanimous. Agreement and progress slowed to a glacial pace. The lubricating oil of past U.S. leadership was diverted to the heat of military preoccupations in the Middle East. Pervasive terror threats encouraged politicians to focus on the high intensity and visibility of the politics of national security and war, as opposed to the low-intensity politics of trade and investment. Progress also slowed due to shifts in the center of trade gravity and challenges in current markets by rapidly growing competitors.
When current negotiations were initiated in 2001, they were started as the Doha Round, where, as was tradition, “all play for everything.” A special focus on developing countries was promised. Despite major enthusiasm and public support, 16 years later the industries targeted in the initial focus—primarily agriculture, services and intellectual property rights—remain uncovered.