WITA Webinar: COVID-19 & Trade - A WTO Agenda
Wendy Cutler with the Washington International Trade Association (WITA)
On Thursday, April 9, the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), along with the Washington International Trade Association (WITA), cohosted a webinar about how the international trade community can combat COVID-19, and the specific role that international economic institutions should play. ASPI Vice President Wendy Cutler, WITA Executive Director Ken Levinson, and Amb. Darci Vetter, former Chief Agricultural Negotiator at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, were joined by Amb. Alan Wolff, Deputy Director-General of the World Trade Organization, and Sabine Weyand, Director-General for Trade at the European Commission.
Cutler began the conversation expressing both hope and disappointment in the role that international bodies such as the WTO or European Union can play in the face of the pandemic. "This is the time where we really need a collective international response," she said. "But it comes at a time where a lot of these international economic institutions are quite weak. It is quite discouraging."
Weyand expressed optimism that some of the most protectionist, trade-restricting measures would soon be lifted, and she cited the EU's work in ensuring that member state actions such as export restrictions did not go too far. "Some member states started to institute outright export bans, and that is when we sprang into action," she explained. While Weyand said she understood why countries might restrict exports of protective equipment when there is a global shortage of such items, she urged international institutions to fight similar restrictions on food exports. "We have to fight restrictions in the food sector, because there is no scarcity of food, unlike protective equipment," she said.
Wolff agreed, and he outlined the ways in which the WTO was trying to lead, despite "sobering" projections that global trade volumes would decline by 13-32 percent in 2020. He specifically pointed to WTO agreements that have served as catalysts for economic rebounds in the past, such as deals on pharmaceuticals or information technology, where he suggested we could see coverage extended further in the future. "We will get around to WTO reform down the road, and we will learn from our current experiences, as well as from the 25 years the WTO has had, about areas that really require improvement," he said.
But Cutler said the jury is still out regarding whether the world's economic institutions are up to the task. "At the end of the day, institutions are driven by countries," she said, noting that a "vacuum in leadership" and U.S.-China tensions may have spilled over into international bodies. "Members need to step up to the plate. Maybe it's an ad-hoc group of countries that needs to come together and eventually bring others on board, if indeed the big countries are not in a leadership position."