To some extent, trade agreements and the rules of trade administered under the World Trade Organization (WTO) are superfluous. Americans would be better off if the U.S. government unilaterally adopted policies that enable freer trade - reducing tariffs, curtailing regulations and other policies that impede competition, etc. - regardless of what other governments do. We don’t need consent from Brussels, Tokyo or Beijing to implement the reforms that would make our economy more efficient.

But with political aversion to unilateral liberalization, trade agreements based on reciprocity have long been the vehicle of choice for reform. From the founding of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947 through the creation of the WTO in 1995, most U.S. trade liberalization was achieved through eight multilateral “rounds” of negotiations under the auspices of the GATT.

But multilateral trade liberalization has failed to produce meaningful results since the mid-1990s. Since then, bilateral and regional free trade agreements have emerged as preferred alternatives - with fewer countries involved, the issues are more manageable and it’s easier to reach agreement. By and large, trade agreements have helped reduce domestic impediments to trade, expand our economic freedoms and lock in positive reforms, even if only as the residual byproduct of an ill-premised mercantilist process.

On this page you will find Cato’s work on trade negotiations, agreements, disputes, and obligation undertaken in those agreements and at the WTO.

More on Trade Agreements and the WTO


WTO Must Step in Before US-China Trade Feud Spirals out of Control

By James Bacchus. The Hill (Online). October 8, 2018.

The Fundamental Flaw in the New NAFTA Deal

By Simon Lester and Inu Manak. The Hill (Online). October 2, 2018.

Brexit Is an Opportunity for a Genuinely Liberal US‑UK Free Trade Deal

By Daniel J. Ikenson. The Times. September 27, 2018.

Cato Studies

The Ideal U.S.-U.K. Free Trade Agreement: A Free Trader’s Perspective

By Daniel J. Ikenson, Simon Lester, and Daniel Hannan. White Paper. September 18, 2018.

Was Buenos Aires the Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning? The Future of the World Trade Organization

By James Bacchus. Policy Analysis No. 841. May 8, 2018.

Where’s the Beef? Finding a Better Way to Resolve U.S.-China Trade Conflicts

By Simon Lester and Huan Zhu. Free Trade Bulletin No. 71. November 8, 2017.


Safeguarding Policy Space in Investment Agreements

Simon Lester and Bryan Mercurio. IIEL Issue Brief. December 2017.

Addressing Regulatory Trade Barriers in Mega-Regional Trade Agreements

Simon Lester and Inu Manak. Mega-Regional Trade Agreements. July 21, 2017.

Six Degrees of Integration: How Closely Will the TTIP Integrate the Transatlantic Market?

Simon Lester. European Yearbook of International Economic Law. Vol. 7. July 17, 2016.

Public Filings

Why Bolsonaro Should Pursue Free Trade with U.S.

By Colin Grabow and Juan Carlos Hidalgo. Legal Briefs. November 14, 2018.

Trade Promotion Agencies and U.S. Foreign Policy

By Daniel J. Ikenson. Testimony. May 19, 2015.

The Pilot Program on NAFTA Long-Haul Trucking Provisions

By Daniel Griswold. Testimony. May 4, 2011.

Cato Reviews & Journals

Is the TPP Free Trade?

Policy Report. September/October 2016.

Protectionism by Any Other Name

Pierre Lemieux. Regulation. Fall 2014.


#CatoConnects: NAFTA and the Trump Tariffs

Featuring Simon Lester, Inu Manak, and Caleb O. Brown. March 14, 2018. Cato Connects.

Clashing over Commerce: A History of U.S. Trade Policy

Featuring Douglas Irwin, Claude E. Barfield, and Daniel J. Ikenson. January 24, 2018. Book Forum.

Trump, Trade, and the Asia Pacific

Featuring Colin Grabow, Daniel J. Ikenson, and Peter Russo. November 29, 2017. Capitol Hill Briefing.