Yesterday How the World Works indulged the whimsical fantasy that the world might file a World Trade Organization complaint against the U.S. on the grounds that failure to curb carbon emissions constitutes an illegal trade subsidy. While unlikely in the extreme, the dream does have one tiny claw grip on reality. As I was reminded today while reading a terrific profile of the WTO in Spiegel Magazine online, the arbitration procedures of the WTO are the only international court to which the United States submits.
(President Clinton did sign the ICC treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, but the Bush administration refused to seek ratification of the treaty, in effect withdrawing the signature.)
Anti-globalization activists tend to see the WTO as a tool for U.S. corporate interests, but the U.S. does not always prevail in proceedings brought before its arbitration panels. While the U.S. can boast a strong record, as of November 2005, in cases that it has filed itself -- out of the 52 such complaint proceedings that have been concluded, the United States has lost only four times -- the U.S. has nonetheless lost 26 of the 54 (concluded) complaints that have been brought against it.
If there could be any single justification for the existence of the WTO, shouldn't it be that it is the one arena in which the U.S. must abide by rulings in cases brought against it by other nations? Sure, such cases generally concern highly specific matters of trade, but in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, doesn't everything ultimately impact the flow of goods between nations? Currency manipulation, lax environmental standards, reckless exploitation of labor ... the list goes on and on.
There are many reasons why the WTO is an imperfect venue for addressing such issues: For one thing, as Stiglitz points out in "Fair Trade for All," the only redress the WTO is empowered to give is to authorize the winning side to impose punitive trade sanctions on the loser. That isn't very effective if the winning side is a tiny country facing off against the United States. If Burkina Faso levies punitive tariffs on the United States, who's going to notice? Still, in the global economy, the WTO is a rare point of leverage, one of the few places in which the world can combat run-amok American unilateralism. It's a long way from the "one world" government so terrifying to ultra-nationalists, but it's a start.