Language, power and multilateral trade negotiations

Rorden Wilkinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Warnings that a breakdown in multilateral trade liberalization would bring about an upsurge in protectionist sentiment, the possible collapse of the multilateral trading system and, in the most doomsday of scenarios, the fragmentation of the global economy have been an intrinsic part of trade negotiations since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was first negotiated.What is seldom acknowledged, however, is the role that this language of crisis and collapse - what might be called a 'crisis discourse' - has had on framing trade negotiations and in maintaining forward momentum in the liberalization process. This discourse has played a role in facilitating the kind of institutional development that the GATT and the World Trade Organization (WTO) has undergone - helping to push through bargains among GATT contracting parties and WTO members that have been (and remain) deeply asymmetrical - and driving the trade agenda forward at moments when the institution appears deadlocked; and it has continued to play a role in the current round of negotiations. The aims of the paper are twofold. First, the paper explores the content of the crisis discourse. Second, it examines the way in which the discourse has been deployed as a means of reframing trade negotiations in such a way that the likelihood of their continuation and ultimate conclusion increases. The paper does this by focusing on the collapse and resumption of the negotiations in the wake of the WTO's 2005 Hong Kong ministerial meeting, though the crisis discourse and its intensification at moments of intransigence has been a key feature of trade negotiations since the Allies first sat down to develop a trade architecture in the wartime and early post-war years. © 2009 Taylor & Francis.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)597-619
Number of pages22
JournalReview of International Political Economy
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2009


  • Developing countries
  • Discourse
  • Doha development agenda
  • Language
  • Power
  • Trade negotiations
  • WTO


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