December 13, 2019 | By Brendan Helm

Adieu, World Trade Organization

On Tuesday, the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Appellate Body—the panel that rules on trade disputes between member nations—became defunct as two members’ terms expired, leaving just one member on the typically seven-member tribunal. The cause of this collapse is the United States’ refusal to approve new appointments to the body. With a minimum of three judges required to ensure the functioning of the Appellate Body, there is no longer an official court to rule on trade grievances in the international economic system.

President Donald Trump has long accused the WTO of unfairly targeting the United States, despite the country winning a higher proportion of cases than it has lost. In 2018, he went so far as to threaten withdrawing from the WTO. Despite these objections to the WTO from the government, the American public is not so quick to decry this international institution. Asked whether the United States should comply with a ruling against it in the trade dispute mechanism, 77 percent of Americans believe that the United States should comply with that decision. Moreover, this is a bipartisan consensus: majorities of Republicans (65%), Democrats (87%), and Independents (76%) believe that the United States should comply with an adverse ruling.

Although Americans support complying with WTO rulings regardless of their outcome, this process is not—at least for now—an option for the United States. The WTO may no longer be able to act as the arbiter of international trade, but the European Union proposed in May 2019 a parallel system for dispute settlement, which would include every member of the WTO except the United States. Though this plan currently has limited support, Chinese officials have revealed that they are in talks with the EU to support this plan. Should this alternate dispute settlement mechanism materialize, it would mean leaving the United States without a means of formally challenging trade practices such as dumping and unfair subsidy practices.

It is possible that the United States will seek to join a new international trade body that it deems more favorable, but their direct part in crippling the Appellate Body may serve as a stain that precludes its membership in any like organization. Either way, the injury sustained by the WTO is another blow to the already turbulent system of international trade.

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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