The magic of government and the legitimacy of international legal orders
In the comments section, Scott Lincicome refers to Lori Wallach’s piece in the HuffPo and apparently is ruffled by the tone.
If only you could see what Public Citizen’s membership and our allied organizations wanted us to publish! We were pretty restrained, and actually understating the political damage this ruling will have on the WTO’s long-term legitimacy.
The fact of the matter is that Public Citizen expended a decent amount of energy trying to lay out for the Appellate Body a way through this morass. We thought that (as a legal matter) there was a way that the lower panel ruling could be overturned and allow the institution to save face. In retrospect, I’m not exactly sure why we did this, because the tone deafness of the Appellate Body ruling is startling.
Scott also dislikes our characterization of the WTO ruling as an “order.”
The relevant passage of the HuffPo piece is: “The ruling, issued Wednesday, was on the final U.S. appeal which means that now the U.S. has 60 days to begin to implement the WTO's orders or face trade sanctions.” Some version of that formulation has appeared consistently in our publications throughout the years.
I could “order” Scott to take down his blog, but he would not need to comply with that “order.” At the other end of the spectrum is an “order” delivered at the barrel of a gun or by a vengeful Norse god, with which compliance is strongly advised.
Somewhere in between is that magical thing we call modern government. The Supreme Court doesn’t have an army, but non-acquiescence with its decisions is rare, because elites believe that the benefits in social order (the other kind of "order") outweigh the costs to complying with disagreeable decisions. The Court in turn exercises (typically) great deference to the political bodies, or it becomes politicized and sees its legitimacy damaged.
Likewise, a WTO “order” backed by the threat of trade sanctions is as close to forced compliance as it gets in international law at peacetime. (The Bank of International Settlements or UN human rights agencies don’t have powers like this.) On the spectrum of meaningfulness of “orders,” the WTO is substantially closer on the spectrum to what modern governments do than my order to Scott to abort his blog. Indeed, by triggering political economic consequences, the WTO agreements create automatic constituencies for compliance, in addition to those that think complying with WTO panels is good per se.
The WTO Appellate Body, just like our own domestic Supreme Court discovered in the New Deal era, cannot be blind to how its rulings actually play out in the real world if it hopes to retain its authority.
In this case, I think we’ve laid out pretty well the politics behind the FSPTCA – a menthol ban is unlikely to happen (not because California Democrats want to protect tobacco industry jobs but because of reasonable regulatory distinctions). However, a roll back of a ban on cloves might happen if the administration doesn't stick to its guns.
Those politics are unlikely to change, and the WTO doesn’t require them to in order to begin compliance proceedings.
If, as a practical matter, the only way that U.S. could comply would be exempting imports from incremental regulatory schemes (and thus, yes, leading to more teenage experimentation with cigarettes than would be true with the FSPTCA whole and intact), then the TBT Article 2.1 ruling becomes the same as an order backed by trade sanctions to eliminate or water down the flavored cigarette ban now in place. Presumably, when some U.S. industries are hit by trade sanctions, the demands for watering down the FSPTCA will grow, increasing the likelihood of that outcome over time.
If the AB is going to get in the habit of putting countries’ backs against the wall on sensitive matters of public health, you’re going to see a lot more demands for non-compliance and non-payment of compensation. My question for the WTO’s supporters is how that state of affairs advances your goals.
Again, we were genuinely surprised by the AB’s ruling. We thought that the public interest stakes were very clear (as they were in EC-Asbestos), and that the AB would find some grounds for overturning the lower panel ruling (say on likeness) and thus allowing the institution to save face.
The fact that they were unable to act in self-preservation (and made a political decision that now is having predictable political consequences) is a bad sign for those that hope to see the WTO remain a legitimate force in global affairs.