The recent WTO attacks on U.S. consumer and environmental policies (see here, here and the one about to be announced here) have revived discussion of whether current trade agreements leave enough space for countries to regulate in the public interest.
Those who think not can cite to the fact that the WTO rules against challenged policies 90 percent of the time. Those who think yes often cite the WTO agreements’ so-called “exceptions” clauses. For instance, the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) Article XX reads in part:
“Article XX: General Exceptions
Subject to the requirement that such measures are not applied in a manner which would constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries where the same conditions prevail, or a disguised restriction on international trade, nothing in this Agreement shall be construed to prevent the adoption or enforcement by any contracting party of measures:
(a) necessary to protect public morals;
(b) necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health;…
(d) necessary to secure compliance with laws or regulations which are not inconsistent with the provisions of this Agreement, including those relating to customs enforcement, the enforcement of monopolies operated under paragraph 4 of Article II and Article XVII, the protection of patents, trade marks and copyrights, and the prevention of deceptive practices;…
(g) relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources if such measures are made effective in conjunction with restrictions on domestic production or consumption;…”
Sounds pretty sweet, doesn't it? Similar provisions are contained in the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) Article XIV.
While the WTO’s proponents argue that these exceptions help preserve sovereign policy space, these defenses are unsuccessful over 96 percent of the time. Put differently, countries that actually go out of their way to invoke the so-called "defenses" are even less successful than those that simply lay down and take the beating.
We can break down the record of these exceptions in more detail.
Typically, when the WTO Appellate Body and panels examine the exceptions, they take three steps.
Say that Australia wanted to defend its anti-smoking policies from WTO attack by invoking GATT Article XX(b) above. The panel would first establish whether it fell within the scope of the subparagraph (b) by determining whether the policy was connected to the protection of human health.
Then, the panel would inquire whether the policy were “necessary” to protect human health, a step which itself is typically broken up into "weighing and balancing" the legitimacy of the aim of the policy (yes, the WTO gets to make a call on the legitimacy of the policies the officials you elected pass), the contribution of the policy to achievement of the aim, the trade restrictiveness of the measure, and whether a less trade restrictive policy option is available.
All these factors are not weighed equally, as it turns out: the trade-related metrics are the big kids on this seesaw.