The WTO's predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), was established by a multilateral treaty of 23 countries in 1947 after World War II in the wake of other new multilateral institutions dedicated to international economic cooperation—such as the World Bank (founded 1944) and the International Monetary Fund (founded 1944 or 1945). A comparable international institution for trade, named the International Trade Organization never started as the U.S. and other signatories did not ratify the establishment treaty, and so GATT slowly became a de facto international organization.
GATT Negotiations before Uruguay
Seven rounds of negotiations occurred under GATT. The first real GATT trade rounds concentrated on further reducing tariffs. Then the Kennedy Round in the mid-sixties brought about a GATT anti-dumping Agreement and a section on development. The Tokyo Round during the seventies represented the first major attempt to tackle trade barriers that do not take the form of tariffs, and to improve the system, adopting a series of agreements on non-tariff barriers, which in some cases interpreted existing GATT rules, and in others broke entirely new ground. Because not all GATT members accepted these plurilateral agreements, they were often informally called "codes". Several of these codes were amended in the Uruguay Round and turned into multilateral commitments accepted by all WTO members. Only four remained plurilateral (those on government procurement, bovine meat, civil aircraft and dairy products), but in 1997 WTO members agreed to terminate the bovine meat and dairy agreements, leaving only two. Despite attempts in the mid-1950s and 1960s to establish some form of institutional mechanism for international trade, the GATT continued to operate for almost half a century as a semi-institutionalized multilateral treaty regime on a provisional basis.
Uruguay Round: 1986–1994
Well before GATT's 40th anniversary, its members concluded that the GATT system was straining to adapt to a new globalizing world economy. In response to the problems identified in the 1982 Ministerial Declaration (structural deficiencies, spill-over impacts of certain countries' policies on world trade GATT could not manage, etc.), the eighth GATT round—known as the Uruguay Round—was launched in September 1986, in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
It was the biggest negotiating mandate on trade ever agreed: the talks aimed to extend the trading system into several new areas, notably trade in services and intellectual property, and to reform trade in the sensitive sectors of agriculture and textiles; all the original GATT articles were up for review. The Final Act concluding the Uruguay Round and officially establishing the WTO regime was signed 15 April 1994, during the ministerial meeting at Marrakesh, Morocco, and hence is known as the Marrakesh Agreement.
The GATT still exists as the WTO's umbrella treaty for trade in goods, updated as a result of the Uruguay Round negotiations (a distinction is made between GATT 1994, the updated parts of GATT, and GATT 1947, the original agreement which is still the heart of GATT 1994). GATT 1994 is not, however, the only legally binding agreement included via the Final Act at Marrakesh; a long list of about 60 agreements, annexes, decisions and understandings was adopted. The agreements fall into six main parts:
In terms of the WTO's principle relating to tariff "ceiling-binding" (No. 3), the Uruguay Round has been successful in increasing binding commitments by both developed and developing countries, as may be seen in the percentages of tariffs bound before and after the 1986–1994 talks.
The highest decision-making body of the WTO, the Ministerial Conference, usually meets every two years. It brings together all members of the WTO, all of which are countries or customs unions. The Ministerial Conference can take decisions on all matters under any of the multilateral trade agreements. Some meetings, such as the inaugural ministerial conference in Singapore and the Cancun conference in 2003 involved arguments between developed and developing economies referred to as the "Singapore issues" such as agricultural subsidies; while others such as the Seattle conference in 1999 provoked large demonstrations. The fourth ministerial conference in Doha in 2001 approved China's entry to the WTO and launched the Doha Development Round which was supplemented by the sixth WTO ministerial conference (in Hong Kong) which agreed to phase out agricultural export subsidies and to adopt the European Union's Everything but Arms initiative to phase out tariffs for goods from the Least Developed Countries.
The Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) is set to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2020. The decision was taken by consensus at the General Council meeting on 26 July 2018 and marks the first time a Ministerial Conference is to be organized in Central Asia.
Doha Round (Doha Agenda): 2001–
The WTO launched the current round of negotiations, the Doha Development Round, at the fourth ministerial conference in Doha, Qatar in November 2001. This was to be an ambitious effort to make globalization more inclusive and help the world's poor, particularly by slashing barriers and subsidies in farming. The initial agenda comprised both further trade liberalization and new rule-making, underpinned by commitments to strengthen substantial assistance to developing countries.
Progress stalled over differences between developed nations and the major developing countries on issues such as industrial tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade particularly against and between the EU and the US over their maintenance of agricultural subsidies—seen to operate effectively as trade barriers. Repeated attempts to revive the talks proved unsuccessful, though the adoption of the Bali Ministerial Declaration in 2013 addressed bureaucratic barriers to commerce
As of June 2012 The conflict between free trade on industrial goods and services but retention of protectionism on farm subsidies to domestic agricultural sectors (requested by developed countries) and the substantiation of fair trade on agricultural products (requested by developing countries) remain the major obstacles. This impasse has made it impossible to launch new WTO negotiations beyond the Doha Development Round. As a result, there have been an increasing number of bilateral free trade agreements between governments. As of July 2012 there were various negotiation groups in the WTO system for the current stalemated agricultural trade negotiation.
, the future of the Doha Round remained uncertain: the work programme lists 21 subjects in which the original deadline of 1 January 2005 was missed, and the round remains incomplete.