President Donald Trump over the weekend signed an executive order directing top cabinet officials to review the nation's trade agreements — including commerce governed by the World Trade Organization.
Trump was critical of the WTO during his bid for president and at times floated withdrawing from the international organization entirely. His administration in March suggested that the U.S. could ignore WTO rulings deemed to be unfair or interfering with the nation's sovereignty.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters last week that the review was intended to tackle "structural problems" with the WTO's oversight of trade disputes. Ross declined to say whether leaving the WTO was "on or off the table," but suggested that the White House would prefer to alter its practices instead.
“There’s an institutional bias on their part toward the exporters rather than toward the people that are being beleaguered by inappropriate imports,” Ross said, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Trump frequently cited U.S. trade deficits with other WTO-member nations on the campaign trail, although that concern was downplayed by economists. A sweeping tax proposal under consideration in Congress, meanwhile, could instead exacerbate trade deficits.
The WTO review was also just the latest example of the White House pushing back against long-standing, bipartisan-supported trade deals; Trump reportedly considered immediately withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement just days earlier.
Critics suggested that the administration was moving too quickly and warned of the potential consequences of leaving the 164-nation WTO.
“Trade wars break out when the rules of the game are unclear or purposely undermined," Nate Olson, the trade director at think tank the Stimson Center, told the Los Angeles Times in March. "That strengthens nobody.”
The Journal, meanwhile, noted that the WTO grew more outspoken in defending its actions amid allegations from the Trump administration.
“Almost none of the global trade challenges we face today would be easier to solve outside of the multilateral system,” WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo said last week. "In fact, the opposite is the case.”