It was 70 years ago today—Oct. 27, 1947—that representatives from 23 nations gathered at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to finalize and sign the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. This globally transformative trade agreement set into motion decades of growing economic prosperity around the globe.
Following the Second World War, these select countries sought to avoid the economically dismal ramifications of post-World War I protectionist policies. With the Great Depression’s shadow looming over the first conference, the conferees understood the importance of international economic cooperation and the negative externalities of restrictive trade policies. The goal of the conference was to pursue a free and open global market, reduce tariffs and dismantle trade barriers to allow the global economy to flourish.
These negotiations were both ambitious and historic. “It marks the completion of the most comprehensive, the most significant and the most far-reaching negotiations even undertaken in the history of world trade,” Chairman Max Suetens, who presided over the trade negotiations along with his co-chair Sergio Clark, announced to the world in detailing the earnest significance of such a feat. This achievement certainly marked the beginning of the postwar economic boom, signaling to all countries that the global market was now a cooperative venture.
Indeed, the enactment of GATT propelled the global marketplace into decades of unprecedented economic growth. In the years to come, countries would continue to build on GATT’s accomplishments of tariff reductions and lower trade barriers, eventually leading to the Kennedy Round, the Tokyo Round and the Uruguay Round. These negotiations were grounded in adherence to a rules-based system, in that their motions and reports were underpinned with logical deduction, rather than a more ad hoc system of policymaking.
At the conclusion of the Uruguay Round, GATT was replaced with a more structured international body, the World Trade Organization (WTO). While the WTO may replaced GATT, it adopted its overall framework. What began as an endeavor among 23 nations to address trade reform has evolved into an international collaborative trade effort, with all but three nations maintaining a membership status as of today.
In the face of today’s trade renegotiations over North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the growing threat of protectionism across the globe, it is immensely valuable to look to the accomplishments made under GATT. This is particularly so in case of the United States, which now is signaling a preference for bilateral rather than multilateral trade agreements. This is an unfortunate development, as all the progress made under both GATT and the WTO demonstrates. Such gains should not be easily dismissed with reckless political rhetoric.
Now is the time to remember that humans flourish when various impediments and barriers are lifted, allowing free and open trade for goods and services. Free trade remains the wellspring of peace.
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