U.S. President Donald Trump has set his sights squarely on the World Trade Organization in Geneva. Even its critics are worried that without the organization, the world of trade would revert to the law of the jungle.
Roberto Azevedo, the director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), is enjoying the moment. Outside, in front of the neo-classical Centre William Rappard, the headquarters of the WTO, Lake Geneva is glittering in the spring sun, while inside, Azevedo is not facing a particularly challenging start to his day. His agenda calls for him to open the Natural Disasters and Trade Symposium – a routine duty.
Azevedo shows up in the conference hall 10 minutes late, shakes hands and chats briefly with colleagues. He is met with goodwill on all sides – which has become a rarity for the guardian of free trade in these turbulent times.
The director general then speaks about how free trade can help countries recover from earthquakes or hurricanes, listing off a few examples and making a plea for stronger WTO involvement. He ends his talk with a sort of disclaimer: “As ever, precisely how we do this is up to our members.”
It is a single sentence that perfectly describes the fundamental dilemma facing the WTO. It is essentially a system of trade treaties between its members, the adherence to which is monitored and moderated by the Geneva-based organization. In times of crisis, everyone looks to the 630 men and women who work in the Centre William Rappard, but the WTO takes no initiative. Everything it does, the organization never tires of repeating, must be at the initiative of its members.