GENEVA — After years of ineffectiveness and slide towards oblivion, the World Trade Organization is now facing its worst moment. This is your chance to change the tide and be a champion for free and fair trade, or you could face an uncertain future.

After a 4 1/2 year pandemic pause government ministers from WTO nations will meet for four days beginning Sunday. They will discuss issues such as overfishing, COVID-19 vaccinations for the developing world, and food security. This is at a time where Russia’s war in Ukraine has prevented millions of tons of Ukrainian grain exports to developing countries.

WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, who was facing a crucial test of her diplomatic skills since she took the job 15 month ago, recently expressed “cautious optimism” that there would be progress on at least one of the four major issues: agriculture, fisheries subsidies, pandemic response, reform and reform of the organisation, Fernando Puchol, a spokesman, said.

Puchol said Friday that diplomats and trade teams had been working hard to produce at least one “clean” text for a possible agreement. This would allow ministers to simply approve and not need to negotiate on any of the issues.

He said, “It’s hard to predict a outcome right now.”

This Geneva-based organization, which is barely 25 years old, brings together 164 nations to ensure fair and smooth international trade and to settle trade disputes. Some experts outside the meeting expect little in the way of achievements. They believe the main goal will be to get the ministers to the table.

“The multilateral trade system is in trouble.” “The Ukraine situation is not helping,” stated Clemens Boonekamp. He is an independent trade policy analyst who was previously head of WTO’s agriculture division. “But, the mere fact they are coming together is a sign that they respect the system.”

Alan Wolff, an ex-WTO deputy director general, expressed optimism that members would make some progress.

He suggested that they might come to an agreement to relieve the looming global food shortage resulting from the war in Ukraine. This would include ensuring that the U.N. World Food Program is exempt from any food export bans imposed on WTO countries who are eager to feed their people.

Wolff, now senior fellow at Washington’s Peterson Institute for International Economics, expressed his confidence in Okonjo–Iweala, saying that he was not prepared to sell her short.

He stated that members were “seeming to be making progress” on an agreement to reduce subsidies that encourage overfishing, something they have been trying for more than 20 years.

Wolff inquired, “Do they wrap them up this time?” “Unclear. It was a drama.

One problem is the WTO works by consensus. This means that any of its 164 members could impede the progress.

The WTO has been a key diplomatic battlefield between developing and developed countries. Experts believe that reform is necessary to make it work.

This trade body was established in 1995 to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It has been slowly unraveling. In years past, it hasn’t been able to produce a major trade agreement. Last year’s big success was the 2014 agreement, which was touted as a boost for lower-income countries and reduced red tape at border crossings.

The United States began to crack down on the WTO appeals court years ago. This court is supposed to be the final word in trade disputes. A high-profile dispute between the U.S.A and EU involved plane-maker giants Airbus or Boeing.

Trump threatened to pull America from the WTO because he claimed it was unfair to America. He didn’t and instead bypassed WTO, placing sanctions on both allies and foes and disregarding the rules and dispute-resolution systems of the trade organization.

The United States was once a champion of WTO and regrets China’s admission. Beijing insists that it has been violating trade body rules too often. The U.S. accuses China, among others, of supporting state-owned companies and preventing free trade. China refutes these allegations.

The WTO attracted huge, violent protests a generation ago — particularly from anarchists and anti-globalists who disapproved of its elites-decide all image and closed-door secrecy.

William Reinsch, an ex-trade official from the United States, stated that the WTO was in danger of being irrelevant. He wrote that the best way to prove it still matters is to negotiate an accord, possibly on fisheries, COVID-19 vaccinations, or a more difficult topic: encouraging more free trade and agriculture.

Reinsch is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington. He said that the United States must do more, including make compromises, to ensure that the WTO can agree on contentious matters.

He stated that “the future of the WTO was at risk.” “Failure would not only be detrimental to the fish and farmers but also for a global economy that is based on rule-of-law, it would also have a negative impact on the global economy.”


This report was contributed by Paul Wiseman, an AP Economics writer from Washington.