The WTO is the world’s primary trading system, comprised of 164 member-economies scattered across all of the world’s five continents, and it is obviously in the interests of the world that it works effectively. But growing disputes between China and the Western economies are making the World Trade Organization increasingly dysfunctional. Could the result be a radical overhaul of the global trading system?
Many developing nations see China as a champion and as an investor. Western countries wish to see China shoulder a greater share of the burden of global leadership, and a growing number of Chinese citizens want China to reclaim its ancient role of international dominance. But is China ready to “lead the world?” Has it reached the stage where it can set the international tone, take the central role on global issues and provide preeminent guidance toward the future? To many the answer might be “yes”, but as the foundations of the powerhouse economy are actually weaker than they seem, that assessment may be premature.
Global trade used to be hailed with no doubt. But today, the international mood for globalization has to a great extent shifted. The deeply-held views on free trade and open access for all, which are at the heart of the globalization trend of recent decades, have been joined by ever-more insistent drum beats of dissent. From Europe and North America particularly, but from other places as well, there are calls for a rollback, for trade restrictions, for sanctions and barriers. There are those in the West who believe that to protect jobs and industries, it is necessary to replace “globalization” with “de-globalization.”
For the past three decades, the general political consensus in the mature Western economies has been that trade liberalization is a good thing: most economists credit rising levels of global trade and cross-border investment with lifting nearly a billion people out of poverty in the developing world and reducing prices for consumers almost everywhere. Yet despite those successes, a growing segment of the public in the mature economies sees the impact of liberal trade policies quite differently— the revisionist view sees free trade as a major cause of the declining prosperity in the mature economies. Why has an anti-globalization consensus developed?