A conference sponsored by the Cato Institute, a Washington-based research group supporting free market policies, Wednesday delivered a mixed appraisal of the new World Trade Organization after 10 years of its existence. There was a qualified defense of the WTO as well as concern about protectionist pressures in the U.S. Congress.
Dartmouth College economics professor Douglas Irwin said the WTO in its first 10 years has done a good job in promoting trade. China, which has emerged as a major trading nation, has joined the WTO and Russia and Ukraine hope to join soon. Mr. Irwin said the WTO is unpopular with some members of the U.S. Congress because it has ruled against the United States in several recent trade disputes. Ironically, says Mr. Irwin, it was the United States that insisted on giving the world trade body significant powers in resolving trade disputes.
"This is not an anti-US bias in the WTO, it's a pro-complainant bias. Whoever brings a case tends to win. As a result the U.S. lost a case regarding cotton subsidies because we were in clear violation of the Uruguay agreements concerning agriculture," says Mr. Irwin. "The steel tariffs had to be removed early, not necessarily a bad thing. But it was keeping the United States honest in terms of how it implemented its trade law."
Another speaker, former commerce department official Grant Aldonas, expressed guarded pessimism about the prospects of concluding a far-reaching trade expansion accord as part of the Doha round negotiations. Those talks, launched in Qatar in 2001, are due to conclude this December in Hong Kong. Some trade experts anticipate a weak outcome in which little is done to roll back agricultural subsidies in rich countries.
Mr. Aldonas, who served as President Bush's Under-Secretary of Commerce until just a few weeks ago, said the United States benefits tremendously from trade. He is critical of trade protectionism and has little sympathy for those who say unchecked immigration is taking jobs from Americans.
"There is a huge inability to get skilled labor out of our schools. I spent two years looking at the (US) manufacturing sector and the most remarkable thing I saw was the jobs that went wanting, not the unemployment figures (which are low anyway)," Mr. Aldonas says. "If there is a failing, the thing we're really not doing is generating the sorts of folks who can fill the jobs of the economy of the future. And we've got an awful lot of people who are unwilling to take the jobs that Mexicans are taking when they come into our country.
Mr. Aldonas and other panelists were not optimistic about that a free trade agreement with Central America will win approval in the Congress any time soon.