We recently spoke to Nicolas Imboden, Partner and Co-founder of the IDEAS Centre Geneva to hear more about the organization and to find out his thoughts on the future of Global Trade*. 

Could you tell us about the IDEAS centre and why you set it up?

IDEAS Centre was set up by the late Arthur Dunkel and myself to help poorer developing countries to integrate into the world economy and to assist them in defending their legitimate interests. We have been very active in accession negotiations (Vietnam, Laos, Lebanon, Tajikistan, Liberia and lately Comoros). We have initiated and accompanied the cotton initiative in the Doha Development Agenda and are working on regional integration in Tunisia, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Kirgizstan and The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

What are the main topics you are working on at the moment?
At the moment we are coaching low-income developing countries (LIDCs) in defining their strategy to get the WTO negotiations going, including defining their offensive interests in the so called new subjects and what global value chains and the mega deals mean for their trade policies both internally and externally. We are also assisting Myanmar in the definition of a new trade policy and on how to set up the required institutional framework. Special attention is given to investment, labour and environmental standards and how to see them as an opportunity rather than a thread.

What do you see as the role of the WTO going forward?

The WTO has lost its monopoly to define the rules of the game in international trade relations. Mega deals and plurilaterals, such as TISA, are better equipped than the WTO to promote the deep integration that is required. Coalitions of the willing (and of countries at a similar level of development) can harmonize their internal regulations much easier than 160 WTO members, some at very different levels of development. The WTO should not try to compete with those other fora, but provide rules on how those deals should be constructed so that countries not at the table are nevertheless heard. Clearly a common dispute settlement system would be of great interest to keep the general principles adhered to, including deals made outside the WTO. 

Do you think the direction of travel for trade agreements is towards the mega-regional, such as TTIP and TPP and what might this mean for the countries inside and outside of these agreements?

It is popular to pretend that mega deals are precursors of multilateral deals. They are the ones that define the future rules, no question about that. However, they distort the system: (i) they define the rules in an exclusive way. As they concern largely measures behind the borders, they impose (de facto or de jure) rules on countries, which are not part of the rule making. This is politically very difficult. (ii) They define those rules that are important to the participating countries i.e. the major trading nations. The interests of poorer countries are ignored. (iii) They redefine the negotiation agenda at the WTO. There is very little appetite for the USA and EU to negotiate in WTO fields like agriculture, where they have to give, if their offensive interests have been satisfied outside WTO. The ones who do not directly benefit from such deals (both within the participating countries and outside) will rebel. What is needed is not to forego the benefits of mega deals, but to define rules which make sure that those who are not at the table are nevertheless heard. I hope this will be the role of WTO.

What do you think could be the most significant change in global trade in the next 10 years?

There are two opposing forces at work. On one side, there is a clear liberalization fatigue and a return to a protectionist/nationalistic tendency in the populations, especially in the North. On the other hand, the market place asks for further and deeper integration. The major issue we are facing in the future is employment and its distribution in the world. While globalization clearly maximizes global wealth, it implies losers and winners. I am not impressed that there are many high paid jobs in California, if I have lost my job in Ohio. We need to show that those who receive windfall gains from globalization are contributing to help those who lose. We have done a bad job at showing this. 

*Please note that the views expressed above are of the speaker and not of Chatham House.