The WTO on Trial

GLOBAL LAW, GLOBAL POLITICS

Last fall, a judicial panel of the World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a controversial ruling in a high-stakes corporate tax dispute between the United States and the European Union. Paying scant attention to the complexities of the case, the panel authorized Brussels to implement retaliatory sanctions of $4 billion -- an unprecedented sum -- against Washington. Notably, around the same time the United States and its European allies were also making headlines with another fierce legal battle: that over the authority of the International Criminal Court to prosecute American soldiers for alleged misdeeds committed abroad.

In the nineteenth century, Clausewitz famously wrote that war is politics conducted by other means; today, as these examples illustrate, the same could be said for the law. Many disputes that used to be settled by negotiation or even by force of arms now end up before a proliferating range of international courts, tribunals, and arbitral panels. Legal briefs are replacing diplomatic notes, and judicial decrees are displacing political compromises.

Less often considered is whether this ascendant legalism is good or bad for global prosperity and stability. In most cases, it turns out, it is still too early to say. There is one exception, however: the WTO. Nowhere else has international conflict resolution by judges emerged more forcefully or developed more rapidly. As in a domestic court -- but unlike in most international bodies -- WTO dispute settlement is both compulsory and binding. Member states have no choice but to submit to it and must accept the consequences of the WTO's ruling.

But what, exactly, does the WTO's record reveal about how it has used its unprecedented powers? The question is a pressing one, for negotiators have only until a May 2003 deadline to take stock of the dispute settlement system and decide whether, or how, it needs to change. Will the dramatic judicialization of international trade be reversed? So far, trade experts have revealed deep ambivalence about the WTO's experiment with binding adjudication, and there is little clear sense of where the system should go from here.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis