As Expected, WTO Clove Cigarette Case Goes Nowhere

The World Trade Organization’s judicial body determined over two years ago that a U.S. law banning clove cigarettes while leaving domestically produced menthols on the shelf was protectionist discrimination.  Now the U.S. and Indonesian governments have reached a “settlement” in which Indonesia agrees to drop the case in exchange for nothing.

Technically, the settlement, as reported, includes a few promises from the United States, but these are so weak as to be practically meaningless.  For example, the United States agrees to refrain from “arbitrary discrimination” against Indonesian cigars (which is already not allowed) and to “postpone” filing its own case against Indonesian export restrictions (which no longer impact U.S. companies).

American refusal to comply with global trade rules against regulatory protectionism is both unfortunate and, in this case, unsurprising.  There were two basic ways that the U.S. government could have come into compliance: 1) by dropping the ban on cloves, or 2) by extending the ban to menthols.  Neither of those options was politically feasible, so the United States did nothing.

Normally, the WTO dispute settlement process can be very helpful in overcoming political barriers to trade liberalization.  When one country loses a case at the WTO and fails to comply, the complaining country has the right to retaliate by raising tariffs on goods from the losing country.  This creates concentrated losses that have much greater political impact than the generally diffuse costs of protectionist policies.  The ultimate goal is to “induce compliance”—the losing country discontinues its offending practice so that the retaliation will stop. 

But the United States is very big and powerful, so that for most countries cutting off imports from the United States is not only ineffective at swaying Washington policymakers but also very harmful to their own economy. Indonesia appears to have decided that dropping the case and walking away makes more sense than continuing to press forward with costly, futile retaliation.

Unfortunately, the clove cigarette settlement joins a growing list of similar cases in which the United States has taken advantage of its economic and political power to avoid complying with WTO rules.  These include a successful challenge by the tiny island nation of Antigua against U.S. restrictions on cross-border online gambling that Antigua has no way to enforce. 

Perhaps the most embarrassing example of noncompliance is the deal between the United States and Brazil reached after Brazil won a case against U.S. cotton subsidies.  The United States managed to avoid retaliation and keep the subsidies by agreeing to send Brazilian cotton farmers a check for $147 million every year. That arrangement appears to be coming to an end with the United States providing one final payment of $300 million and keeping the cotton subsidies indefinitely.

The United States doesn’t always refuse to comply with WTO decisions.  The threat of retaliation from Canada and Mexico may very well make a difference in the ongoing fight over protectionist U.S. regulations related to origin labels for meat.  A big difference between that case and clove cigarettes is that Canada and Mexico are the two largest export markets for U.S. products. 

There’s reason for optimism, but the reputation of the WTO dispute settlement process is being put at serious risk by this administration’s lack of commitment to the rules of the international trading system.

Topics: