New Hoover Essay in Public Policy: Democratizing the World Trade Organization By Fiona McGillivray

Monday, November 20, 2000

In an enlightening new Hoover Essay in Public Policy, Democratizing the World Trade Organization (Hoover Press, 2000), Fiona McGillivray explores recent demands to reform the World Trade Organization by non-governmental groups who feel they have "no political voice within the World Trade Organization" and denounce it as an "undemocratic institution, secretive and uncaring."

Critiquing the validity of the groups' allegations, McGillivray, assistant professor of political science at Yale University, separates the legitimate claims for reform from self-interested lobbying. In her essay she offers insight into the real functioning of the World Trade Organization and the possibility of specific targeted reforms.

"Opening the World Trade Organization process to greater participation won't necessarily make the World Trade Organization more democratic," warns McGillivray. "There are more winners than losers from free trade, but because the costs and benefits are distributed unevenly, only the losers face strong incentives to organize and lobby the World Trade Organization. Most lobbyists seek protection, not open markets."

Acknowledging World Trade Organization trade negotiations are closed and "not all World Trade Organization transcripts or records are open to the public," McGillivray points out that this is also true of all representative governments. Moving beyond this procedural standard, McGillivray asks the pertinent question: "Which U.S. special interests get represented at closed World Trade Organization negotiations?"

There are complexities to the functioning of the World Trade Organization that shade the public's perception of the organization. While McGillivray concedes that the United States trade representative wields a "disproportionate influence" in the World Trade Organization, she also notes that the United States trade representative is "increasingly constrained by Congress, which pushes the interests of U.S. domestic industry and trade unions."

"It is the interests of U.S. multinational corporations that are increasingly trampled and ignored," she writes.

Her warning is clear: Participation by non-governmental organizations could "pull outcomes further from the interests of the majority and toward the interests of unelected special interests."

While warning off opening the World Trade Organization to participation by non-governmental organization, McGillivray is aware inequalities within the World Trade Organization that are problematic. Specifically, she notes the under-representation of poorer countries in trade negotiations. The established policy of organizing talks between supplier nations and purchaser nations and then extending resulting treaties to the other member countries favors economically powerful nations. However, the World Trade Organization does make "allowances for its poorer members," explains McGillivray.

"All countries are bound by the outcome of the principal supplier/purchaser negotiations," she writes, "but poor countries are often allowed to opt out."

"Of course," she points out, "if developing countries have more power within the World Trade Organization, it is less likely that the United States will be able to link trade to environmental issues or labor rights."

Fiona McGilivray is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University. She has been published in the American Journal of Political Science and International Organization. Her current book project is a study of how industry, geography, and political institutions affect the pattern of trade protection across industries and political systems. The Hoover Institution, founded at Stanford University in 1919 by Herbert Hoover, who went on to become the 31st president of the United States, is an interdisciplinary research center for advanced study on domestic and international affairs.