The History of GATT and the Current Crises in the Global Order

Francine McKenzie
Western University

Critics of the leadership and competence of the World Health Organization (WHO) during the Covid-19 pandemic have called for the fundamental reform of the organization. Before the pandemic, the dispute resolution body of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was under fire because its rulings were seen as unsound and over-reaching. These are serious criticisms, but they are not new.

All the major organizations in the UN-system have faced criticism and disgruntled members have periodically withheld funding, blocked proceedings, and threatened to quit.  Occasionally they have even followed through. The latest round of criticism raises doubts about whether these organizations can survive in their present form. Before we can assess the shortcomings of these international organizations or evaluate the effectiveness of proposals to reform them, we need to better understand their failures. The history of one organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO’s predecessor, can help us understand why the international organizations that are integral to the current global order invariably irritate members and disappoint expectations.

A lot has been written about GATT by political scientists, legal scholars, economists, historians, as well as officials and activists. But the organization itself is not well understood.  Part of the confusion stems from the volume that has been written about GATT, much of it inconsistent or even contradictory. GATT has been described as a regime, a contract, an inter-governmental treaty, a body of law, a club, a forum, and a consumers’ union. It has been characterized as apolitical, technical, obscure, informal, and ineffective. These definitions and descriptors are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they obscure the organization’s nature and operations. Contradictory assessments of its work and impact compound the problem. Some have criticized GATT as an instrument of American imperialism, an enemy of the environment, a levelling force that erases local cultures and national distinctiveness, and the cause of unemployment and individual suffering. But others claim it is ‘widely considered to have been one of the most successful – if not the most successful – of the postwar international economic organizations’[1] and ‘perhaps the most important and authoritative of all the current International Organizations and regimes’.[2]

Studies of GATT typically examine one of the eight rounds of trade negotiations conducted between 1947 and 1994. There’s a good reason behind this common approach.  Negotiations that lowered tariffs, and later on other kinds of barriers to trade, advanced the organization’s mandate to liberalize and increase international trade. In GATT and Global Order in the Postwar Era, I shift the focus to quotidian and behind-the-scenes institutional activities that expand our understanding of how the organization functioned and the relationship between member states and the secretariat. I also focus on the Cold War, the rise of regional trade blocs, development and agriculture to explore the ways in which trade and politics were interconnected and show how GATT itself was ‘entangled in politics’.[3] Digging deeply into the institutional history revises our understanding of the nature and workings of our current global order. Continue reading “The History of GATT and the Current Crises in the Global Order”