Breakingviews - WTO is early test of Joe Biden’s multilateralism

A delegate arrives before a meeting at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland, October 28, 2020.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Uncle Sam’s allies across the globe have high hopes for President-elect Joe Biden. German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier spoke for many when he said on Monday that Biden’s victory augured a return to stronger multilateralism. The World Trade Organization will offer an early chance for Biden to show that’s true. Even changes in form will produce changes in substance.

A snarled-up leadership race is the latest problem plaguing the global trade body. Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala last month won the backing of all delegations except the United States. The lone rejection was enough to throw a spanner in the works, given the decision must be approved by consensus. It was a new blow for the WTO, whose appeals panel has already been paralysed because the administration of President Donald Trump has been blocking judicial appointments.

The trade body has cancelled a meeting that was supposed to be held on Monday to decide on how to break the impasse, and may have to wait a bit longer given that Biden has other priorities before he’s sworn in on Jan. 20. But he could then quickly break the logjam by giving U.S. backing to the former Nigerian finance minister, either without strings attached or in exchange for other countries’ backing for reforms to global commerce rules.

Either way, Biden will push for an overhaul. American criticisms of the WTO were bipartisan and include the time it takes to settle disputes and what successive administrations have viewed as judicial overreach in some areas, such as anti-dumping cases. A Biden administration will also share its predecessor’s concerns about China’s non-tariff barriers and subsidy programmes.

The difference is that Biden is likely to build multinational coalitions and exert joint pressure in a multilateral framework rather than going it alone or threatening to pull out of international bodies, as Trump has done. This bodes well for organisations ranging from the World Health Organization to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Under Biden, the United States will also rejoin the Paris climate accord.

The change in rhetoric will be a relief to U.S. allies. Plenty of other countries share some of America’s trade concerns. The goodwill that a more collegial approach will generate could help Biden get more of what the United States wants than his predecessor achieved.


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