history of trade
History of the multilateral trading system
From the early days of the Silk Road to the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the birth of the WTO, trade has played an important role in supporting economic development and promoting peaceful relations among nations. This page traces the history of trade, from its earliest roots to the present day.
The early days of trade
Trade and foreign policy have been intertwined throughout history, with foreign policy often tailored to promote trade interests. In the 3rd century BC, during the Han Dynasty, China used its military power to maintain the Silk Road for its value for trade. In the year 30 BC, Rome conquered Egypt in large part to have a better supply of grain.
- Trade and foreign policy have always been intertwined — speech delivered by DDG Wolff
Before the GATT
A single page of text from 1941 is a powerful reminder that the desire for peace and security drove the creation of today’s global economic system. The global rules that underpin our multilateral economic system were a direct reaction to the Second World War and a desire for it to never be repeated.
- Trade in War’s Darkest Hour — Churchill and Roosevelt’s daring 1941 Atlantic Meeting — article by Hunter Nottage
How the GATT came into being
The lead negotiators for the creation of the GATT profoundly disagreed on the level of ambition to be achieved but finally overcame their differences.
- Clash of the GATT negotiators article by Roy Santana
- GATT 1947: How Stalin and the Marshall Plan helped to conclude the negotiations article by Roy Santana
- GATT 1947 and the gruelling task of signing article by Roy Santana
- 1947 press release announcing the signing of the GATT
- PIIE’s Trade Talks podcast: Happy 70th GATTiversary — The Origins of Multilateral Trade
The GATT years
From 1948 to 1994, the GATT provided the rules for much of world trade and presided over periods that saw some of the highest growth rates in international commerce. It seemed well-established but throughout those 47 years, it was a provisional agreement and organization.
- The GATT years: from Havana to Marrakesh
- The Uruguay Round
- GATT documents
- GATT bilateral negotiating material
- GATT disputes
Birth of the WTO
The WTO’s creation on 1 January 1995 marked the biggest reform of international trade since the end of the Second World War. Whereas the GATT mainly dealt with trade in goods, the WTO and its agreements also cover trade in services and intellectual property. The birth of the WTO also created new procedures for the settlement of disputes.
50th anniversary of the multilateral trading system
1998 marked the 50th anniversary of the multilateral trading system.
- Golden jubilee of the multilateral trading system
- WTO holds 2nd Ministerial, celebrates 50th anniversary of trading system
The Doha Round was launched in 2001 to achieve major reform of the international trading system through the introduction of lower trade barriers and revised trade rules. A fundamental objective of the Doha Development Agenda is to improve the trading prospects of developing countries.
Over the past 20 years, WTO members have agreed major updates to the WTO rulebook to improve the flow of global trade. The WTO's membership has expanded to members, representing over 98% of international trade. In 2015, the WTO reached a significant milestone with the receipt of its 500th trade dispute for settlement.
- Revised WTO Agreement on Government Procurement enters into force
- WTO disputes reach 500 mark
- Expansion of the Information Technology Agreement
- TRIPS Agreement amended to ease access to affordable medicine
- Trade Facilitation Agreement enters into force
WTO ministerial conferences
The Ministerial Conference is the highest decision-making body of the WTO and usually meets every two years. The WTO's first Ministerial Conference was held in Singapore in December 1996. Its most recent — the 11th — was held in Buenos Aires in December 2017.
GATT and WTO Directors-General
The first Director-General of the GATT was Eric Wyndham White, who held office from 1948 to 1968. The current Director-General of the WTO is Roberto Azevêdo, who began a second four-year term in September 2017.
25th anniversary of the WTO
In 2020, the WTO marked its 25th anniversary.
- History of the multilateral trading system
- WTO at twenty
- Nelson Mandela centenary: WTO tribute
- Ambassador John Weekes talks about the creation of the WTO and the current trade debate
- Interview with Long Yongtu, Chief Negotiator of China’s WTO accession
- Interview with former WTO Director-General Peter Sutherland
- The Dispute Settlement System: What Reforms for 21st Century?
- Julio Lacarte Muró — The multilateral trading system's six decades
- The GATT/WTO at 60: Achievements and Challenges
- 30 years of settling disputes in the multilateral trading system
An annual compilation of trade statistics has been produced by the WTO and its predecessor — the GATT - since 1952.