"Everybody meets in Buenos Aires," said Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Union's trade commissioner, days before traveling there for the World Trade Organization's biennial gathering of ministers, which opened Sunday.
Some nongovernmental organizations have been blocked by the protest-averse Argentine authorities, but a meeting of people is taking place. One of minds is another matter.
Most participants can agree on one thing. The WTO, which codifies the multilateral rules-based trading system, needs help. President Donald Trump has railed against it and threatened to pull the U.S. out. Without U.S. leadership, there is little hope of reaching new deals. And even as the WTO's deal-making arm is paralyzed, the Trump administration is weakening its judicial one by starving it of judges.
Despite Trump's threats, the U.S. does not seem on the verge of crashing out of a system it helped to construct, to rely entirely on bilateral trade deals and remedies. He may think that true reciprocity means American tariffs to match Chinese ones. For goods, America's average is 3.5 percent and China's is 9.9 percent. But Congress is likely to stymie attempts to raise duties, and anything Trump does manage will face swift and painful retaliation.
Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, seems to be sticking to the WTO's rules for now. Last week, for example, he requested evidence relating to solar-panel imports to help make the case that any tariffs would be WTO-compliant.
But an institution can be damaged without blowing it up. Over the past few weeks organizers of the meeting in Buenos Aires have been managing expectations down. No one thinks much will be agreed on. Some lament that a committed U.S. administration might have achieved a pact on curbing fishing subsidies, revived one easing barriers to trade in environmental goods, and set an ambitious agenda for e-commerce.
Instead, the Americans have been bickering over the language in a proposed joint statement. They quibble with references to the "centrality of the multilateral trading system" and to "development" as an objective.
Still, it is unfair to blame the Trump administration alone for the likely lack of progress in Buenos Aires. The deal-making arm of the WTO has not worked for years. India routinely holds agreements hostage to its demands. The Chinese scuppered an agreement over environmental goods. Some developing countries say deals to help them should be agreed on before new areas are opened up.
Updating the rules needs consensus among all 164 member countries, which is almost unattainable. "Even the U.S. at its most constructive isn't going to fix the system where it is now," said Andrew Crosby of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, a Switzerland-based think tank.
The sabotaging of the WTO's appellate body, however, is clearly the handiwork of the Trump administration. On Monday, the term of Peter Van den Bossche, the European judge on the body, expired. He will be the third judge whose reappointment the Americans have blocked.
On the present course, by the end of 2019 too few judges will be left to rule on new cases (three are required). Mark Wu, a law professor at Harvard University, worries that gumming up the judicial arm may make countries doubt that the WTO is equipped to settle disputes. "The risk is less of an immediate explosion," he says, "than a slower death by a thousand cuts."