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This chapter details the history, politics, and recent trends and challenges of the multilateral trade system. The twentieth century witnessed a remarkable emergence of international institutions, and nowhere was their impact greater than in international trade. Following decades of depression and war, a global trading regime was initiated with the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, which expanded steadily in both scope and membership through the twentieth century and culminated in the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. Underpinned by the philosophy that open markets and non-discriminatory trade policies promote the prosperity of all countries, and issued with a powerful dispute settlement mechanism, the WTO has been hailed as the most prominent example of cooperation between countries. At the same time, however, the WTO has been subject to internal and external criticism and now faces a number of difficulties.


Erin Hannah and James Scott

This chapter assesses the global trade system. It begins by looking at the debate over free trade and protectionism. The chapter explores the evolution of the multilateral trade system, with particular emphasis on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), highlighting the centrality of trade liberalization and non-discrimination in contemporary trade relations. It then considers the debates surrounding the relationship between trade and development, particularly around how multilateral trade rules reflect unequal power relations, and the social consequences of liberalized trade. The chapter also reflects on the recent backlash against neoliberal trade and the ostensible turn towards protectionism in some parts of the world. Finally, it highlights the gendered nature of trade and how it affects gender equality.