World Trade Organization Director-General Roberto Azevedo Fabrice Coffrini/Getty Images

An Opportunity for the WTO

The World Trade Organization has long swept its problems – from flawed rules for granting members “special and differential treatment” to an unworkable understanding of consensus – under the rug. If it doesn't take action soon to reform and upgrade its functioning, it may well become increasingly irrelevant.

ONTARIO – This December, trade ministers from around the world will converge in Buenos Aires for the World Trade Organization’s 11th Ministerial Conference. With the United States, which has historically led the world toward trade liberalization, now actively stoking trade tensions, the meeting is set to be unlike any other.

The WTO’s ministerial gatherings are never easy. Some kind of agreement is usually delivered, but only at the last minute, and its language is often vague. This time, however, the outcome might be even more disappointing, with delegates unable to reach even a symbolic agreement that they can tout with an aggressive marketing campaign.

The current tensions over free trade, rooted in the uneven distribution of its benefits, cannot be resolved within the WTO, let alone by a ministerial gathering. But that doesn’t mean that the upcoming conference must be for naught. On the contrary, it should serve as a critical opportunity to initiate the update and recalibration that the WTO needs to remain an effective platform for international trade cooperation and consensus-building.