13th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has ended without an agreement


The 13th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has ended without an agreement on any of the major issues. Among the items which prevented a decision – they are only taken when there is unanimity – are issues central to the Global South such as agriculture, fisheries, taxing of global e-commerce giants and areas where advanced countries have precipitated matters such as the body’s dispute-resolution mechanism.

To be sure, WTO has always been a bargaining table for the Global North and South to balance their interests without jeopardising rules-based global trade. But, its members are finding it more and more difficult to arrive at a common ground on many issues.

What does it mean for India and, more importantly, the global trade order? The Narendra Modi government has done well to safeguard some of India’s core concerns, such as the legitimacy of our procurement-driven food security programme, at WTO. In other areas such as fisheries, stonewalling decisions that are against India’s poor have perhaps come at the cost of allowing the status quo in areas such as taxing e-commerce giants that work to India’s disadvantage.

However, there is a more macro and provocative question waiting to be asked. Is WTO, in its present form, capable of making the global trade regime more equitable and even keeping it rules-based? These are the two key promises on which the idea of WTO itself was sold to the world, and especially the Global South.

The answer, if the past couple of ministerial conferences are any indication, is increasingly tending towards a no. The reason is not to be found in the working of the WTO secretariat or officials. The crisis of WTO is pretty much a reflection of the churn in global capitalism, characterised by a growing populist, even autarkic, turn in advanced economies, the rise of emerging market economies such as China and India, which are competing with the developed countries in many sectors but also have a large population that faces third-world problems, and the persistence of extreme vulnerabilities in large parts of the Global South.

This is a very different landscape from what existed when WTO came into being. Fixing WTO’s conundrum cannot be done without acknowledging this fundamental shift.

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