With steel industry lawyers and executives populating key trade policy positions in the Trump administration, we are witnessing the return of an old, rusty narrative that portrays the World Trade Organization as unaccountable global government intent on running roughshod over U.S. sovereignty. On the Forbes website, today, I explain why that is a protectionist canard.
Here are the opening paragraphs:
John Bolton took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal yesterday to assert America’s interest in abandoning international institutions that threaten U.S. sovereignty. In identifying the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Body as such an institution, Bolton was reinforcing a central theme of the Trump administration’s recently‐minted 2017 Trade Policy Agenda. That document is short on specifics, but makes one thing clear: Under threat of going rogue, the United States will leverage its indispensability to compel changes at the WTO that accommodate a more expansive, less surgical application of domestic trade laws.
“Defending our national sovereignty over trade policy” and “strictly enforcing U.S. trade laws” are, explicitly, the top two priorities on the agenda. Taken together, those priorities suggest the Trump administration will aggressively execute U.S. trade laws with little regard for whether that execution violates internationally‐agreed rules established to prevent and discourage abuse of such laws. Agreeing that “all animals are equal,” then adding the famous caveat “but some are more equal than others” is what is meant by “defending our national sovereignty.”
Given the prominence of domestic steel industry representation in the Trump administration, these priorities aren’t surprising. High on the list of talking points of the Washington‐swamp‐savvy U.S. steel lobby is the assertion that the WTO’s DSB, by finding U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty practices in violation of WTO obligations on numerous occasions over the years, usurps U.S. sovereignty over its own laws. This is a complaint frequently made by Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s USTR‐designate, who for decades has represented domestic steel interests in AD/CVD cases before U.S. agencies.
And here are the concluding paragraphs:
The prominence of the claim that U.S. sovereignty is threatened reflects the over‐representation of steel interests in the Trump administration. It is intended to add credibility to the implied threat that the United States will ignore DSB rulings with which it disagrees unless and until there are changes made to the WTO texts that render compliant the United States’ non‐compliant actions on trade remedies. But it is irresponsible to risk blowing up the system, especially on behalf of an industry that accounts for less than 0.3 percent of the U.S. economy.
The bottom line is that the WTO dispute settlement system, though not perfect, offers a reasonable formula for balancing the simultaneous imperatives of preserving the rule of international trade law and national sovereignty.
But there are many paragraphs in between that I hope you will find time to read here.