By David Bosco
Given its power, the World Trade Organization’s appellate body receives very little attention. Its seven members generally toil in obscurity even as they issue rulings on trade disputes with huge economic implications. But a U.S. campaign to unseat one appellate body member has brought the WTO’s judicial arm unusual attention.
The dispute emerged earlier this month at a session of the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), a WTO committee that includes all members. The United States opposed what would normally be the routine reappointment of appellate body member Seung Wha Chang, a South Korean national. In the International Trade Daily, Bryce Baschuk provides context:
The U.S. opposition comes during a precarious time for the WTO dispute settlement system, which is overburdened by a heavy workload of complex dispute cases and a growing shortage of senior dispute settlement judges.
More than two-dozen WTO members—including Brazil, the European Union, Japan, and South Korea—commented on the U.S. decision and many said it posed a serious threat to the independence and impartiality of the appellate body.
Unless the U.S. withdraws its opposition, Chang’s term will end on May 31 and open a second vacancy on the seven-member panel.
International trade expert Gregory Shaffer sees in the U.S. move a serious threat to the WTO’s integrity:
[The U.S. Trade Representative’s] hubris could be explained if this were Putin’s Russia. Or perhaps Trump’s America. But the Obama administration? Has this fallen outside the President’s radar? It is a high-risk strategy for an administration that professes to be internationalist. The core reason for building a global trade regime is to create a third party institution that helps manage conflicts that could ultimately endanger international welfare, peace, and security.
Even if Shaffer is overstating matters, U.S. isolation on this issue is striking; the summary of the DSB session indicates very little support for the American position. It is conceivable that there is broader dissatisfaction with Chang and that the United States is taking the hit for others (it wouldn’t be the first time). But the episode may also represent a new instance of hamfisted diplomacy in the international economic realm (with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank imbroglio being the most notable recent example).