Brookings’ Joshua Meltzer takes an extended look at the future of the global trading system (html / pdf / event). The introduction is a good overview of the status quo’s challenges, though knowledgeable observers will find plenty of room for disagreement in assessing the shape and magnitude of various obstacles (e.g. the bicycle theory of trade negotiations, PTAs’ diversion of attention from multilateral talks).
The discussion of WTO legitimacy at the end of the piece is very interesting, though I won’t focus on it in this post. (More on that subject can be found in this Oxford book on trade ethics.)
In the middle of the article, Meltzer hints at an argument that has perhaps not received sufficient attention:
For the United States, the European Union, China, and Japan, bilateral and even regional FTAs maximize their ability to get their own way. Were these outcomes to become templates for future multilateral trade rounds, then a two-level game that leverages FTA outcomes into the WTO might undermine the WTO’s legitimacy.
One such danger is that FTAs might be a means for the US or EU to try to lock in first-mover advantages in shaping regulatory standards (such as technical barriers to trade). While preferential tariffs can be undone relatively easy by further tariff cuts, plurilateral agreements that promulgate the adoption of a larger economy’s preferred technical standard might serve to determine which standard is later adopted multilaterally. A first mover might gain at the expense of others if its preferred standard is worse for world welfare. (This scenario would be most damaging if technical standards are to be harmonized, but it also highlights the difficulties of harmonization. If mutual recognition is the future of reconciling technical barriers to trade, then the scope for first-mover advantages may be reduced.)