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


Will the New NAFTA Boost Digital Trade?

By Simon Lester. National Interest (Online). May 5, 2019.

USMCA: A Marginal NAFTA Upgrade at a High Cost

By Daniel J. Ikenson. Jewish Policy Center. April 10, 2019.

If Remainers like Free Trade with the EU, Why Not with Rest of the World?

By Ryan Bourne. UK Telegraph. February 7, 2019.

Cato Studies

Closing Pandora’s Box: The Growing Abuse of the National Security Rationale for Restricting Trade

By Simon Lester and Huan Zhu. Policy Analysis No. 874. June 25, 2019.

Trump’s First Trade Deal: The Slightly Revised Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement

By Simon Lester, Inu Manak, and Kyounghwa Kim. Free Trade Bulletin No. 73. June 13, 2019.

Disciplining China’s Trade Practices at the WTO: How WTO Complaints Can Help Make China More Market-Oriented

By James Bacchus, Simon Lester, and Huan Zhu. Policy Analysis No. 856. November 15, 2018.


A Proposal for “Rebalancing” to Deal with “National Security” Trade Restrictions

Simon Lester and Huan Zhu. Fordham International Law Journal. Vol. 5. No. 42. 2019.

Access to Trade Justice: Fixing NAFTA’s Flawed State-to-State Dispute Settlement Process

Simon Lester, Inu Manak, and Andrej Arpas. World Trade Review. March 16, 2018.

The Rise of Populist Nationalism and the Renegotiation of NAFTA

Simon Lester. Journal of International Economic Law. Vol. 21. No. 1. March 2018.

Public Filings

Enforcement in the New NAFTA

By Simon Lester and Inu Manak. Public Comments. June 4, 2019.

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 NAFTA 2.0 Better than Nothing?

Pierre Lemieux. Regulation. Winter 2018-2019.

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.