The GATT at 75: taking a hard look and challenging the prevailing narrative

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), signed by 23 nations in Geneva on October 30th, 1947, is turning 75.

It now governs the entire global economy.

You may ask, why don’t I hear more about the GATT? Well, that’s a good question. Perhaps a significant reason is the common misperception that the GATT was somehow replaced by the WTO.

Not to pick on the Wall Street Journal, but even in a love letter specifically to the GATT for its 50th anniversary, the editors managed to convey this mix-up, referring to the WTO as “GATT’s new incarnation”. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry for the GATT says “GATT was replaced by the WTO” and uses the past tense to refer to the trade agreement.

That’s not right. The GATT persists as the global free trade agreement it’s always been. The text of the GATT itself hasn’t changed drastically since it was negotiated alongside the now long-dead Bretton Woods financial system. We’ll discuss later how it’s been fleshed out a bit, and married to some other big agreements, but for all intents and purposes it’s the same old GATT.

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