International Organization

Research Article

In the Shadow of Law or Power? Consensus-Based Bargaining and Outcomes in the GATT/WTO

Richard H. Steinberg


This article explains how consensus decision making has operated in practice in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade/World Trade Organization (GATT/WTO). When GATT/WTO bargaining is law-based, consensus outcomes are Pareto-improving and roughly symmetrical. When bargaining is power-based, states bring to bear instruments of power that are extrinsic to rules, invisibly weighting the process and generating consensus outcomes that are asymmetrical and may not be Pareto-improving. Empirical analysis shows that although trade rounds have been launched through law-based bargaining, hard law is generated when a round is closed, and rounds have been closed through power-based bargaining. Agenda setting has taken place in the shadow of that power and has been dominated by the European Community and the United States. The decision making rules have been maintained because they help generate information used by powerful states in the agenda-setting process. Consensus decision making at the GATT/WTO is organized hypocrisy, allowing adherence to the instrumental reality of asymmetrical power and the sovereign equality principle upon which consensus decision making is purportedly based.

Richard H. Steinberg is Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at