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History

Seven rounds of global trade negotiations were held under the auspices of the GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, prior to the establishment of the WTO in 1995.  The GATT rounds focused almost exclusively on at-the-border measures of tariffs and quotas. 

By the time of the Uruguay Round negotiations, industrialized nations and business groups were persuaded that the next major leap forward in terms of international trade and global economic integration would come less from a focus on tariffs, but rather through addressing non-tariff trade barriers.  Nontariff barriers are government measures such as product standards, labor standards, local content requirements, environmental protection measures--and, in the United States and other federal systems, from the different regulatory regimes and laws that operate at the sub-federal (state) level.  

In the early 1990s, there was little optimism that a 'grand bargain' could be struck between all countries party to these trade negotiations.  It all seemed just too complicated.  The prevailing pessimism was one of the reasons that the United States opened up another aggressive negotiating front with Canada and Mexico, which resulted in the North American Free Trade Agreement.  

Eventually, however, the major industrialized countries were able to resolve their differences, allowing for a 'grand bargain' to be struck.  The Uruguay Round was concluded, and that led to the birth of a new institution called the World Trade Organization. 

Although the Uruguay Round trade talks had been going on for years, there was at the end a flurry of deal-making and compromises.  Decisions on some of the hardest issues were simply postponed for later consideration. The areas postponed included regulation of services, agricultural subsidies, and intellectual property protections.  These areas remain at the core of WTO debates.

The frenzy of activity at the end of the round also meant that not all of the implications of what had been agreed to had been analyzed in terms of domestic policy impacts. 

Some developing countries came away from the Uruguay Round discussions unhappy with what had been agreed to at the last minute, and unhappy about the timetables that industrialized countries could use to bring their tariffs,  quotas and subsidies into compliance with the new WTO mandates.  

Because of the speed of the final decisions, states and cities--and even members of Congress--were mostly unaware of the contents of the Uruguay Round's 'grand bargain.'  Many of the most difficult decisions were simply 'kicked down the road'--to a future negotiating round, or to be decided on by the WTO dispute resolution body.  

So, in many areas of WTO rule-making and treaty interpretation, we are just now finding out now some of the consequences of these Uruguay Round decisions.

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