U.S. Blocks Appointments Of New Judges To World Trade Organization

Oct 2, 2018
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK. We're going to shift gears now and talk about how the Trump administration views international organizations, in particular the World Trade Organization. President Trump often complains that these international groups take advantage of America. And he has often targeted the WTO, which sets and enforces global trading rules. In fact, the administration is so unhappy with the WTO it's been blocking the appointment of new judges, threatening to cripple the organization. NPR's Frank Langfitt has the story from Geneva.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: President Trump can't stand the World Trade Organization. Here he is in 2017...

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I get a headache thinking about who made these deals, one after another - WTO.

LANGFITT: ...In the White House in July...

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TRUMP: WTO has treated the United States very badly.

LANGFITT: ...And in a Bloomberg News interview in August.

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TRUMP: I would say the WTO was the single worst trade deal ever made. And if they don't shape up, I would withdraw from the WTO.

LANGFITT: For one thing, the U.S. government complains the judges of the global trading organization, which oversees disputes, overstepped their bounds. Here's Robert Lighthizer, U.S. trade representative, speaking last year at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

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ROBERT LIGHTHIZER: There have been a lot of cases where, in my opinion, the decisions are really indefensible.

LANGFITT: For instance, in response to a complaint from Mexico, WTO ruled the U.S. had to use the same standards for dolphin-safe tuna in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, even though the conditions and animals are different. Meredith Crowley is a professor of international economics at the University of Cambridge.

MEREDITH CROWLEY: Countries like the United States see, oh, this is a little bit of an infringement on our right to regulate our own domestic consumer markets. And so there's been a small series of chipping away at these types of domestic discretion over policy.

LANGFITT: The World Trade Organization sits on the banks of Lake Geneva. And today it's a beautiful, beautiful day, hardly a cloud in sky. It's in the 80s. People are out in boats, paddleboarding, even swimming in the lake. It's very placid. But inside the WTO right now, the mood is really different.

KEITH ROCKWELL: It's, without any question, the case that this is a crisis.

LANGFITT: Keith Rockwell is chief spokesman for the WTO. He says the organization is running out of judges to hear appeals on trade disputes. In the past two years, the WTO has gone from seven judges to three. By the end of next year, it'll be down to one and unable to hear appeals, which observers say could encourage more countries to violate trade rules. And that, Rockwell says, could hurt the global economy.

ROCKWELL: If the rules of the game are not being adhered to and enforced, it creates uncertainty. And that affects investment decisions, sourcing decisions.

LANGFITT: And businesses could become more cautious about investing in new projects, which could hurt jobs and growth. The U.S. insists it just wants to reform the WTO, but many observers are skeptical of Trump's intentions.

MARCELO OLARREAGA: Now in order to make the system better, what you cannot do is paralyze the system and completely ignore it. And that's what the Trump administration is doing today.

LANGFITT: Marcelo Olarreaga is a professor of international economics at the University of Geneva. He says Trump would rather do one-on-one deals where he thinks the U.S. can get better terms because of the vast size of the American economy. Well, Olarreaga spoke over Skype.

OLARREAGA: If you ask me what I think is the strategy today of the U.S. administration, it's to get rid of the WTO because then the U.S. can do whatever they want. Mr. Trump has been quite explicit on this during the presidential campaign. He wants to impose U.S. rules on every country.

LANGFITT: Which would upend the global trading order. Although Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of the WTO, he can't actually do it without congressional approval. But in the meantime, the president can make it harder and harder for the organization to do its job.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Geneva, Switzerland.

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