As the Ninth WTO Ministerial Conference (MC9) gets underway, the multilateral trading system finds itself confronting a number of global challenges. Lack of progress in the Doha Round negotiations combined with the proliferation of regional trade agreements over the past decade is evidence of a fundamental shift in the way governments perceive trade policymaking. Moreover, the increased role of services and the operations of global value chains demonstrate how there have been fundamental changes in the way trade is carried out. Forming the backdrop to this range of policy shifts is the growth of unsustainable food supply patterns and increased natural resource scarcity. Many of these issues are threatening the relevance of the WTO and the way it operates.

Nearly two years ago, WTO members formally declared the Doha Round to be at an “impasse,” after repeated setbacks and missed deadlines. Since then, members have set their sights on clinching a package of deliverables from the Doha talks in time for the Bali conference – mainly, a trade facilitation agreement, together with some agriculture components and some provisions with relevance to developing and least developed countries. If the package is agreed, many experts say it will help reaffirm the relevance of the WTO in the 21st century and possibly kick-start a more productive round of trade negotiations in the future. As negotiators work toward Bali, many are also asking questions about the post-Bali direction of the WTO. How best to deal with unresolved Doha Round issues will likely be at the forefront of these discussions.

Other questions may include how to address the so-called “emerging issues” – for instance, climate change or currency manipulation – in the WTO context, and whether the global trade body should even be dealing with these issues at all. Meanwhile, how to improve the functioning of the WTO’s current bodies and endeavours is another question that members are expected to grapple with in the months and years ahead.