Twenty-five years after the WTO was established, the intensity of public interest in this global institution has receded considerably. This decline is both symptomatic of the multilateral trade order’s decline but also a cause for its further erosion.

The WTO paradox – necessary but sidelined

The WTO faces a paradoxical situation today. Efforts to further liberalize trade and investment flows through bilateral agreements are met with loud protests within Western societies. Meanwhile, opponents of these agreements are voicing objections to procedural matters casting doubt on the legitimacy of the negotiation processes. Given its role as a global forum, the WTO could, in principle, step into the void and strengthen the legitimacy of efforts to deepen liberalization. However, it is paralyzed and marginalized – not only by key policymakers but also by the wider public.

Key finding #1 – The WTO slips from the public’s eye in both Germany and the U.S.

As our new study shows, the multilateral approach to trade matters has increasingly drifted out of the public eye in important member states, such as Germany and the U.S. And with it, the hope that the WTO might create a fairer global playing field has dwindled (see Figures 1 and 2). Only the trade conflicts under the Trump administration, which have dominated the trade agenda since the beginning of 2018, have drawn public attention in the West back to the WTO. This time, however, the WTO is seen as the victim of a new era of protectionism and no longer as the hub of a rules-based multinational order.



Key finding #2 – Germans believe in the WTO’s ability to manage globalization declines

Ideally, the WTO would be the nucleus from which better and improved globalization can emerge. However, according to a more critical narrative in Germany, national and corporate self-interest have prevented this vision from materializing. The financial crisis of 2008 is one of the drivers of this topic (Figure 3). It reached its peak in the course of the 2015 conflict over the TTIP transatlantic economic agreement, which was negotiated outside the WTO framework. However, protectionist populism and its manifestations (Brexit, Trump) are also featured prominently.


Key finding #3 – China’s rise plays a bigger role in shaping perceptions of the WTO in the U.S.

Unlike the EU and other key Western trading partners for the United States (Canada, Mexico, and Japan), China plays a significant role in shaping the U.S. view on global trade. In fact, the country has become so central to U.S. trade that it is the subject of two topics at once. While U.S. reporting at the turn of the millennium tended to emphasize China’s cooperative role in managing an unstable global economy, ever since China has been increasingly depicted as a strategic challenge (Figure 4).


Key finding #4 – WTO dispute settlement is not an issue in the U.S. public debate

While in Germany, WTO dispute settlement proceedings repeatedly give rise to reports, they do not feature prominently in the U.S. public debate. From the second half of the 2000s onwards, fewer and fewer reports in the United States discuss the proceedings (Figure 5). This is surprising for two reasons: First, the number of trade disputes has increased into the 2010s, with the United States initiating the most complaints and China being the most frequent object of these complaints. Second, the Trump administration has been very outspoken in its criticism of the mechanism.


Key finding #5 – WTO Director-Generals find it hard to make their voices heard

A relevant indicator of an institution’s standing in the public eye is the extent to which its leaders are well known. Since celebrity is a vital factor for news coverage, it’s often difficult for journalistic media to report on institutions not headed by prominent individuals. The WTO has a serious deficit in this respect. Current Director-General Roberto Azevêdo is not present in either the German or U.S. media. The WTO’s leadership rarely plays a role in coverage of the organization (Figures 6 and 7). Peter Sutherland, the first director-general, and Pascal Lamy, who was well-known thanks to his role as EU Trade Commissioner, are the sole exceptions to this rule.



Our approach – mixing algorithm-supported analysis with qualitative methods

We arrive at these findings after examining news coverage of the WTO between January 1, 1994, and June 30, 2019. Using an algorithm-supported analysis of articles published in German and American newspapers, we identify patterns in public discourse. The combination of an algorithm-driven, unsupervised statistical process of categorization, with qualitative analysis conducted by researchers, allowed us to isolate underlying narratives and frames in public discourses and changing reporting patterns over time.

Conclusion – multilateral solutions are no longer among the set of public options

In democratic societies, those actors able to determine the issues and solutions on the agenda have an advantage. Should they falter, they lose their claim to framing the narrative as others begin determining the public debate. Conflict-laden unilateral strategies of trade enjoy advantages in highly competitive media systems while conflict management mechanisms, which are far more complex, risk losing popular support. This lack of public interest in the WTO in both Germany and the United States, which is likely to be similar in other countries, is thus a structural problem for the WTO as an institution and for multilateral trade governance as a whole.

Authors: Karin BoczekHenrik Müller, and Thomas Rausch