The World Trade Organization (WTO)

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the role of the WTO in promoting global trade

speakers and participants at the 2018 WTO public forumIn the post–World War II environment, countries came to realize that a major component of achieving any degree of global peace was global cooperation—politically, economically, and socially. The intent was to level the trade playing field and reduce economic areas of disagreement, since inequality in these areas could lead to more serious conflicts. Nations agreed to work together to promote free trade, and, with the help of key international organizations like the World Trade Organizations, they entered into bilateral and multilateral agreements.

GATT: How the World Trade Organization Got Its Start

Before you begin your reading on the World Trade Organization (WTO), take a few minutes to watch the following video that will give you some background on General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and explain how it grew into the WTO we know today. Remember, the world is much smaller today than when your parents and grandparents were growing up, and international trade hasn’t always been the norm. After watching the video, consider how impossible world trade would be without some type of agreement among nations.


You can view the transcript for “Episode 37: GATT/WTO” (opens in new window) or the text alternative for “Episode 37: GATT/WTO” (opens in new window).

As you saw in the video, what began with one agreement (GATT) eventually evolved into the WTO. In fact, GATT was the only multilateral instrument governing global trade from 1946 until 1995. Given the difficulty of trying to regulate trade among more than one hundred nations according to a single document, it’s easy to see why the WTO came into existence. It became clear to the participating nations that GATT was incapable of adapting to an increasingly globalized world economy. Moreover, when the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations was launched in September 1986, it marked the largest global effort to structure trade in history. Today, GATT still exists as the WTO’s umbrella treaty for trade in goods, but it’s no longer the only legally binding global-trade agreement.

What does the WTO actually do? Among its various functions, the most important are the following:

  • Oversees the implementation and administration of the agreements between nations that fall under the WTO’s scope of authority
  • Provides a forum for negotiations and settling disputes among nations

In recent years, the WTO has also made it a priority to assist developing nations as they come under WTO regulation. Many developing countries and emerging markets lack the experience and technical expertise needed to deal with large and very comprehensive trade agreements. The WTO provides them with critical training and support, thereby ensuring that the WTO is inclusive and equitable toward both the wealthiest and the poorest nations in the world.

Part of the nondiscrimination mandate of the WTO is most-favored-nation (MFN) status. Most-favored-nation status requires that a WTO member must apply the same terms and conditions to trade with any and all other WTO members. In other words, if a country grants another country (even a non-WTO member) a special favor, then every other WTO member must get the same treatment. You probably experienced a version of most-favored-nation status as a child, when an adult told you that if you were going to take gum or candy to class, you had to bring enough for everyone. In other words you couldn’t just give gum or candy to your best friends, and if you didn’t have enough for everyone in the class, then nobody got any. That, in effect, is how most-favored-nation status works.

One of the other key elements to the success of the WTO is its transparency requirement. WTO members are required to publish their trade regulations and follow a system that allows external parties to review and evaluate any administrative decisions and their impact on trade regulations. When a WTO nation changes its trade policies, those changes must be reported to the WTO.

Overall, the WTO’s mission is to improve the stability and predictability of global trade. As a result, it tends to support free-trade, as opposed to protectionist policies, and strongly discourages the use of quotas and other such restrictions on imports.

Practice Question

Whether or not the WTO is doing its duty and accomplishing its mission is a matter of ongoing debate. Nonetheless, the WTO currently has 164 members and 23 observer governments. WTO member states account for almost 97 percent of global trade and 98 percent of global GDP. Once the observer governments become members, it is possible that the WTO will oversee the entire world economy. What began in 1947 in Geneva, with twenty-three nations focused solely on tariff reduction, has grown into a truly global organization that deals with agriculture, labor standards, environmental issues, competition, and intellectual property rights.