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date: 21 July 2019

Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses the origin and structure of the international trading system, through the substantive obligations, or building blocks, of that system, the dispute settlement system, and its consequences. It examines the economic and institutional context of the world trading system, its substantive law (including regional trade regimes), and the settlement of disputes. It suggests that there is room for improvement of existing rules or the adoption of new ones. It is also concerned with the impact of the international trading regime on social values. This article looks at the wider framework of international trade law and analyses the respective roles played by multinational corporations and civil society in the development of trade law and its ongoing evolution.

Keywords: international trading system, trade regulation, trade law, social values, civil society

One of the most important developments in international law over the past decade has been the growth in the content and application of international trade law. The Uruguay Round agreements establishing the World Trade Organization (WTO) expanded the range of trade disciplines in both traditional and new areas. The WTO created a new international institution and a binding dispute settlement system through which the rules of the agreements have been clarified and developed. Through that process international trade law has been expanded and enhanced and there has been a considerable development more broadly of the wider field of public international law.

The details of the new international trade regime have been dissected frequently by scholars, government officials, and trade law practitioners. Instead of replicating this body of work, the purpose of this Handbook is to put the international trade law regime in a broader context, to provide an overall perspective of the regime; how it fits with existing systems, how it affects and modifies them, and how it too is modified by them.

The contributors to the Handbook represent a wide variety of legal backgrounds and approaches to law and they have amongst them substantial and diverse experience in the field of international trade and in international economic relations generally. They were given the mandate to examine and critique existing approaches to their areas and to explore the implications of having a functioning system of international trade law for States, for other international regimes, for civil society, and for human welfare.

The topics dealt with in this Handbook range from the origins and structure of the international trading system, through the substantive obligations, or building (p. 2) blocks, of that system, the dispute settlement system and its consequences, the inter-section of the international trading regime with other areas of international regulation, and then to the broader environment where the relevance of trade regulation has been more controversial and where the relationship to trade law has yet to be fully explored. In the final chapter, a look ahead to the future is provided.

The linkages between trade and other areas of international law are explored in Part IV. Some of the chapters contend with modern ‘Trade and …’ topics such as trade and the environment and trade and health. Others deal with topics, such as labour and investment, that were originally intended to be included in the work of the International Trade Organization had it come to fruition. Certain chapters address conflict, overlap, and interaction between trade law and other rules of international law. Some suggest room for improvement of existing rules or the adoption of new ones. Together, they show the reach of trade rules into other areas of domestic and international policy and they show how trade law has been influenced and affected by other rules and policies.

Some of the actors that have influenced the trading regime are considered in Part V, including the multinational corporation, civil society, and the United Nations. The three chapters in this Part look at the wider framework of international trade law. They analyse the respective roles played by multinational corporations and civil society in the development of trade law and its ongoing evolution. Another chapter considers the link between trade and international peace in security, arguing that the predominant ‘exception oriented’ approach of the WTO is overly limiting and the relationship between international trade law and UN law needs to be rethought. These chapters highlight the diverse interests of a number of actors in what has become an effective, global trade law regime. They point to the need for greater access, involvement, and coordination.

At one level, then, this is a book about international trade law as a vehicle for facilitating economic relationships, between economies of the original GATT order, and between those economies and the newly industrialized economies including the emerging major economies of China, India, and Brazil, and the least developed economies of the world. At another level, the book is concerned with the impact of the international trading regime on social values that States acting either individually or collectively through international fora seek to preserve and protect, including the more recent attention on issues of personal and national security.

This volume also takes stock of international trade law. The virtual explosion of the discipline since the advent of the WTO, the emergence of new scholarly publications and of associations of scholars, the development of international trade law and investment law bars, and the public debate about trade law and public policy, all make the broad perspective that this Handbook provides timely. It is, hopefully, also the start for new dialogues across many branches of the field as the scholarship and practice of international trade law continues to grow.