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Whither the Multilateral Trading System?

The global economy today is dominated by three major players – China, the EU, and the US – with roughly equal trading volumes and limited incentive to fight for the rules-based global trading system. With cooperation unlikely, the world should prepare itself for the erosion of the World Trade Organization.

BRUSSELS – Free trade seems to have few supporters these days. Though actual trade volumes are recovering from the post-crisis recession and drop in commodity prices, “globalization” has become increasingly contentious, as exemplified by the election of US President Donald Trump on the back of a promise to rip up international agreements and get tough on trade partners. What does this mean for the future of the rules-based trading system?

Some 60 years ago, when the current rules-based global trading system was conceived, the United States was the world’s sole economic “hyperpower,” possessing unquestioned dominance in the day’s most advanced manufacturing industries. With enough power to impose rules, and enough dominance to be able to count on accruing the largest share of the benefits, it could – and did – perform the role of “benevolent hegemon.”

As Japan and Europe recovered from World War II – with the latter getting an added boost from economic integration – America’s lead began to dwindle, and by the 1970s and 1980s, the US was sharing power over the world’s trade agenda with Europe. Nonetheless, because the US and Europe share so many common interests, they generally adhered to a cooperative approach.

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