Discovering the complexities of trade

Students go online for 'remarkable' WTO simulation

The World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

The World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo courtesy of the World Trade Organization.

A class of MRU policy studies students got a virtual taste of the complexities of the World Trade Organization (WTO) last semester as they joined students from other Alberta post-secondary institutions in a simulated WTO ministerial meeting.

Driven by agreements negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world's trading nations and ratified in their parliaments, the WTO is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. It seeks to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct business. Conferences of trade ministers from member countries are held every two years.

Co-ordinating and overseeing the virtual simulation was Duane Bratt, PhD, policy studies professor in MRU’s department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies; David Savistan, PhD, economics professor at MRU; Greg Anderson, PhD, University of Alberta political scientist and an expert on North American trade; and Chris Kukucha, PhD, who specializes in provincial trade policy at the University of Lethbridge. Taking part were 31 students at MRU enrolled in Policy Studies 4421 (International Economic Policy), 30 students at the U of L and 40 at the U of A.

How to reach a global consensus

Duane Bratt, PhD, policy studies professor in MRU’s department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies.

Duane Bratt, PhD, policy studies professor in MRU’s Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies.

Ideally, global rules of trade provide assurance and stability with secure supply and greater choice of finished products, components, raw materials and services through open markets. The theme of this simulated “round” of negotiations was environment/climate change, an issue the global trading regime has struggled to incorporate.

“It went really well, surprisingly well,” enthused Bratt of the online endeavor. “We held a simulation with over 100 students across three campuses. We were pleasantly surprised at how well it worked and how the technology held up.”

Decisions in the WTO are made by consensus and then ratified by members’ parliaments. Trade disagreements are sent to the WTO’s dispute settlement process. This reduces the risk of disputes escalating into conflicts.

Nothing passed during the simulation round held in late November, but consensus has proven elusive for the WTO in the real world, too, where rounds can drag on for years. During the simulation, students began to get frustrated, Bratt says.

“On the second day I put on my professor hat and said, imagine if the WTO could impose measures on countries. How would that work? Countries wouldn’t follow those measures or they would leave the WTO. That’s why you have to get unanimous support. It’s difficult and it takes a lot of work, so the fact that we couldn’t do it in four hours was not unexpected.”

Despite its challenges over the years, Bratt points out that since its inception in 1995 the WTO has been able to fix the rules around the previous GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) that had been in place since 1948 and now contribute to smoother trade through the dispute settlement mechanism.

Over the past four years, the WTO has also come up against a determined foe in a U.S. administration that has sought to weaken if not destroy it. The enigmatic President Donald Trump has actually been quite consistent when it comes to trade, Bratt maintains.

“There’s a lot of inconsistencies and flip flops that Trump has had in his career, but being anti-trade isn’t one of them,” Bratt says. “He’s always been anti-trade because he sees everything in binary terms — that you’re either a winner or a loser — and he can’t imagine that two groups could get together and both win.

“It used to be Japan he railed about in the 1980s and now it’s China and Mexico. It’s been a consistency with Trump because he sees trade as a zero-sum game.”

Sharing knowledge across institutions

While model UNs are common in universities, simulated WTO ministerial meetings are not, particularly one across campuses using virtual technologies during a pandemic. The origin of the simulation can be found in the professional relationships between the faculty members at the different schools.

“I’ve known Chris for decades. We went to grad school together. We co-edited a series on Canadian foreign policy. Chris has also done work with Greg. The textbook that I’ve used in my course for the last couple of years is edited by Greg and Chris, so Chris was kind of the lynchpin, and he’d been having conversations with Greg over the summer,” Bratt says.

“We thought, ‘We’re having to go online anyway. Let’s do it and if it works, we’re geniuses and if it fails, it’s COVID’s fault.’ And it worked.”

At MRU, the world trade course leading up to the simulation is taught by a team focusing on politics and economics (in this case Bratt and Savistan). Prior to the four hours of simulation, students at all schools did work in advance to learn about the WTO, their countries and their processes.

Student teams were encouraged to look at which other WTO members they were likely to find common-cause with; who might oppose their positions and whether they could be persuaded to change them and the likely outcomes at home from not “getting your way” in the negotiations.

“My team and I found the most difficult part of representing Vietnam during the WTO simulation was finding out the diplomatic dynamics between Vietnam and other countries,” policy studies student Wyatt Claypool says.

“Every group did a good job of fitting into the role of their country’s WTO delegation and had the correct attitude towards different allies and foreign opponents, which posed an issue being Vietnam as the country’s relationships with former and current communist nations in Asia and western powers is quite complex.”

Representing South Korea, student Eric Robbins says he knew his team would need to achieve a balancing act to reach their desired agenda related to climate mitigation.

“As such, we forged alliances with both regional and international powers, as consensus was the only means to pass resolutions within the WTO. Overall, it was incredible to have been given the opportunity to participate in this complex simulation,” Robbins says.

A large challenge in the simulation included keeping each country’s position on issues in mind,” Robbins’ teammate Daniel Caine says. “Instead there was a tendency to look at what our country, South Korea, wanted and divide the others into opposed, friendly and neutral coalitions.”

Robbins gave full marks to the faculty for their work in developing and hosting the simulation.

“Considering that this event was entirely online, and across three separate universities, it was remarkable that the professors managed to pull it off in such a streamlined fashion.”

Explore the Faculty of Arts, including the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies. Learn more about Mount Royal University and how to apply.

Jan. 4, 2021 — Peter Glenn

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