Victorious after World War II and the Cold War, the United States and its allies largely wrote the rules for international trade and investment. Critically, the United States and European Union drove the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 with the aim of opening trade in goods and services for their products, ramping up protection for their intellectual property, and transforming national trade-related law and institutions within countries around the world to look more like American and European law and institutions. Developing countries joined the WTO, but often complained that its rules were skewed. As a result, it was argued, the U.S. and European Union could rule the global economy through rules. They were incredibly successful, as WTO norms transformed laws and institutions within emerging economies.
Yet by 2020, 25 years after the WTO’s creation, it was the U.S. that has become the great disrupter—disenchanted with the rules’ constraints, including on its ability to create new rules. It was the U.S. that flouted WTO rules in the name of “national security” and the national interest—even to protect American producers of aluminum siding, and to pressure countries to block migration from Mexico and Central America. It was the U.S. that neutered trade dispute settlement and threatened to withdraw from the organization. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom— the EU’s second largest economy—voted by referendum to leave the European Union. As nationalist parties rose in prominence throughout Europe, the EU was pressed to turn inward to protect its very existence, curtailing its role on the global stage. It continues to defend multilateralism, but it is in a much weaker position following the euro crisis, internal divisions over migration, Brexit and the ravages of the COVID-19 virus, than it was in the 1990s.
Paradoxically, China and other emerging economies became stakeholders and (at times) defenders of economic globalization and the rules regulating it, even while they too have taken nationalist turns. Before the World Economic Forum in Davos, that paragon of global institutions, China’s President Xi declared in his 2016 keynote address, “We must remain committed to developing global free trade and investment, promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation through opening up and say no to protectionism.”
How did this come to be? How did the emerging powers invest in trade law to defend their interests? What has this meant for their own internal economic governance? And what does it mean for the future of the trade legal order in light of intensified rivalry between the U.S. and China, triggering a new economic cold war?
Many economists write of China’s rise in terms of efficiency—a combination of Western know-how and Chinese wages that triggered a “manufacturing miracle” where China became producer for the world. In his book The Great Convergence, Richard Baldwin explains how the revolution in information and communications technology in the 1990s led Western firms to outsource production of goods and services to countries such as China and India, creating a new unbundling of production through global supply chains. This unbundling “created a new style of industrial competitiveness—one that combined G7 know-how with developing-nation labor.” China became the manufacturer for the world. Its share of world manufacturing surged from 3% percent in 1990 to 19% in 2015. Western firms outsourced services to India, whose services exports increased more than 22-fold from US$8.9 billion in 1997 to US$204 billion in 2018, while its manufacturing grew in parallel. Such growth triggered a commodity boom for Brazil’s highly competitive agribusiness and mining sectors.
These economic shifts catalyzed dramatic changes in shares of global gross domestic product. In just 29 years, the share of the G7 (U.S., Japan, Germany, U.K., France, Canada and Italy) plummeted 18 percentage points, from 64% (in 1990) to 46% (in 2019) in nominal terms, and to 30% measured by purchasing power parity. In contrast, China’s and India’s share soared. At the start of 2020, the share of global GDP of China, India and Brazil approached that of the U.S. in nominal terms (21% compared to 24%) and almost doubled it in terms of purchasing power (29% to 15%). Within a decade, China should become—once more—the world’s largest economy.
These changes in the share of global GDP gave rise to shifts in power, as political scientists stress. While the U.S. and Europe turned inwards, emerging powers like China gained confidence and became central players in the global economy. The creation of the G20 for global economic governance first reflected this transition.
The growing U.S-China rivalry now dramatizes it. China, India and Brazil each play a leadership role in regional economic governance, and they aim to play a growing role globally. Although the U.S. wishes to halt China’s rise, the reality is that two-thirds of countries trade more goods with China than the U.S., compared to just one-fifth in 2001, the year China joined the WTO. Simply put, the economies and market size of China and other emerging powers matter, providing the country with negotiating leverage, constituting a form of power.
So, what about law? Stated simply, it is not just structural and material power that govern the world, but also law, legal institutions and their practices. They are complementary, and they affect each other. Law and legal institutions provide normative resources that actors harness to advance their interests. They simultaneously affect the normative environment in which actors operate, which shapes their understanding and pursuit of interests. The story of emerging powers’ rise and the implications for global trade governance requires a complementary story about law and their deployment of it. My book, Emerging Powers and the World Trading System, provides that story. It tells the past story of trade law’s impact within large, emerging powers and their response to trade law, which, in turn, helps us understand the current context and responses to this context that will shape international trade and economic law’s future. The book shows how emerging powers changed internally to engage better externally.
These countries’ institutional changes and investments in legal capacity shaped the international trade legal order. They learned how to play the legal game to thwart U.S. and European dominance of the trade regime, both in negotiations and in litigation over the meaning of legal texts. This dynamic, in turn, constrained U.S. and E.U.EU policymaking, ranging from agricultural subsidies to industrial protection through import relief law. When the U.S. and European Union turned away from the WTO to create new rules through bilateral and regional trade and investment agreements, China and other emerging powers developed their own initiatives and models as well.
The challenges for the future of the multilateral legal order for trade are clearly material, structural and ideological, as well as legal. On the one hand, they reflect the growing economic power of China, and the impact of trade from China and other emerging economies within the United States. On the other hand, traditional narratives of the benefits of free trade that ignore the impact on the economically vulnerable, have been destabilized, especially in the United States.
The development of legal capacity to use, make, shape and apply law are is a critical part of this story, and they will continue to shape the evolving ecology of the trading system. By defining the trade order in terms of rules and judicialized dispute settlement, the WTO system created an opening for emerging economies to invest in trade law capacity and take on the U.S. and Europe at their own legal game. As a system of law purportedly in service of fairness and equal treatment, weaker players could also win. Law’s ideology of rationality and fairness could constrain the powerful, shape the interpretation of norms, and affect their strategies. The legal order for trade, although slanted in favor of the powerful, offered opportunities to weaker parties who could compete through building legal capacity. China’s, Brazil’s and India’s investments in legal capacity help explain the paradox of the U.S. abandoning the legal order that it created.
The U.S. challenge to the legitimacy and efficacy of the international trade regime that it created, and emerging powers’ defense of that regime, is a paradox that cuts across international relations theories.
John Ikenberry, in his book After Victory, published a decade after the end of the Cold War and five years after the WTO’s creation, asked this central political question: “What do states that have just won major wars do with their newly acquired powers.” His answer was a legal one: They create the rules of the game. In this situation, he wrote, states “have sought to hold onto that power and make it last” through institutionalizing it. He called the order that the U.S. created a “liberal hegemonic order” because other states consented to it in the context of American unipolar power, while the U.S. agreed to constrain itself under the rules to “make it acceptable.”
Michael Zurn, in his theory of global governance, argues that such regimes create resistance because they are “embedded in a normative and institutional structure that contains hierarchies and power inequalities.” He thus contends that “counter-institutionalization is the preferred strategy by rising powers.”
And the realist Graham Allison, in his book Destined for War, writes, “Americans urge other powers to accept a ‘rule-based international order.’ But through Chinese eyes, this appears to be an order in which Americans make the rules, and others obey the orders.” The paradox with the trade legal order is that China and other emerging powers became its defenders, while the U.S., under the Trump administration, attacked it as illegitimate and neutered its dispute settlement system. The U.S. became the revisionist power. So far, the Biden administration has continued these policies, although with a more constrained rhetoric and without the 3 a.m. tweets.
Political fault lines over trade are not just between states, but also within them. Such politics shape legal ordering internationally. Developments in China implicate companies and workers in the U.S.; the rise of U.S. economic nationalism implicates companies and workers in China. International law and institutions such as the WTO can provide an interface that helps to shape those interactions, but international law and institutions are also reciprocally shaped by them. International law and institutions are both medium and outcome.
For trade liberals, this has the arc of a tragedy. International trade law rose in prominence and trade law norms permeated deeply within emerging powers’ laws, institutions and professions. Yet, the very success of such legal ordering triggered unintended consequences. As these countries rose in economic importance and built legal capacity to wield WTO law to defend and advance their positions, the U.S. became disenchanted with the legal order it had created. It elected an economic nationalist who became “a wrecking ball,” unsettling the international legal order for trade and broader economic governance.
Effective international legal orders must be grounded in common perceptions of problems that law can address. If perceptions of underlying problems shift in radically divergent ways within the U.S., E.U.EU and these emerging powers, then the WTO as a multilateral institution based on common rules that permeate domestic laws and institutions becomes unsettled. There is no end of history, no unidirectional force toward a particular manifestation, breadth or depth of international legal ordering. Norms settle and unsettle, internationally and domestically, often in parallel. Now the centralized WTO legal order for trade is declining, giving rise to fragmenting, overlapping and competing regional and bilateral legal ordering.
The challenge for states will be how to maintain and adapt the international trade legal order to changing political and economic contexts. To maintain the international trading system to foster economic order, sustainable and inclusive growth, and the pacific settlement of disputes through law, the U.S., E.U.EU, China, India and Brazil will need to collaborate to define rules governing the interface of their economies. International trade law and institutions are no nirvana, but the alternative to them could be dire. We are in the history and make the history with the choices we make today.
The Trump administration may have neutered the WTO’s dispute settlement system and brazenly ignored WTO rules. So far, the Biden administration has done little to nothing to change this. Its legacy for the multilateral trading system will depend on the decisions it makes in the months to come.
Gregory Shaffer is Chancellor’s Professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law and President-Elect of the American Society of International Law. This essay is taken from his book Emerging Powers and the World Trading System (2021, Cambridge University Press).