By Ian Talley and Andrea Thomas 

Top global economic and finance institutions defended the role of the World Trade Organization on Monday, countering a Trump administration challenge some fear could undermine decades of rules-based order.

The heads of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Labor Organization joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel, acting as this year's leader of the Group of 20 largest economies, in issuing a statement backing the WTO.

"Trade policy cooperation and coordination are more than ever of utmost importance," said the statement, released at a conference in Berlin.

The statement didn't mention the Trump administration explicitly, but comes after U.S. President Donald Trump's trade team in March argued the case for disregarding some rulings of the WTO, the Geneva-based body that oversees most of the world's international trade disputes.

"The WTO is essential in order to create new growth, employment and development opportunities on a global scale," especially amid disappointing trade growth and an upswing in protectionist tendencies, the statement said.

The Trump administration's U.S. Trade Representative office declined to comment.

Administration officials say the WTO has failed to uphold fair-trade principles, overlooking some countries' practices that distort cross-border flows of goods and services at the expense of jobs, industries and economic growth. U.S. officials have also discussed implementing new tariffs and other policies that other countries say might violate WTO agreements, but that Washington sees as necessary to rebalance distorted trade relationships.

Many companies complain access to China's markets has become more difficult in recent years. And trade-watchers are documenting a surge in nontariff barriers around the world. Worries about growing protectionism dominated a recent meeting of the G-20 finance chiefs.

Economies should respond to trade tensions not by erecting barriers, but by seeking greater economic and financial integration to strengthen global economic growth, the IMF, World Bank and WTO said.

WTO head Roberto Azevêdo, speaking in Berlin, warned countries against disregarding international trade rules, saying that would likely prompt retaliation by other nations.

Instead, member countries should rely on his organization's toolbox of measures to deal with what some might regard as unfair trade conditions.

"A strong global trading system centered on the WTO remains critical," the IMF, World Bank and WTO said in a joint report prepared for the Group of 20 largest economies and released Monday.

"Trade does not need to be repressed, trade needs to be reinvigorated, trade rules need to be respected," said IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde in Berlin. "If anything, trade needs to be supported."

The three global institutions -- each facing fights with the Trump administration over their respective roles in the world economy -- said the WTO had proved to be a "powerful tool" for ensuring policies don't distort international trade.

"Sustaining the dispute settlement system" and reviving the WTO's negotiating role "is more important than ever," the report said. "Continued efforts in these areas would also discourage all types of protectionism, and further demonstrate that trade agreements provide a system of rules that is evenhanded to all."

That isn't how the Trump administration sees it, however, saying the WTO has been a weak trade watchdog.

"The American people grew frustrated with our prior trade policy not because they have ceased to believe in free trade and open markets, but because they did not all see clear benefits from international trade agreements," the USTR's office said in March in its first report on the president's trade agenda.

The system of rules governing trade hasn't delivered promised gains for U.S. workers or industries, the administration argues, pointing in particular to the massive trade deficits the U.S. maintains with China, Mexico and other major trade partners.

Mr. Azevêdo countered that new technology is a bigger cause of job losses around the world than trade.

The McKinsey Global Institute, for example, estimates that only about 20% of the 5.8 million U.S. manufacturing jobs lost between 2000 and 2010 were eliminated because they were moved abroad. The rest were lost through automation, weak demand and other factors.

Economists say skepticism of globalization and trade has been a common theme among the different constituents around the world who decided to pull the U.K. out of the European Union, elect Mr. Trump to the White House and encourage China's government to put the brakes on long-promised market liberalization.

The IMF and its sister institutions say global trade integration has fueled global economic growth, spurred productivity growth and cut consumption costs for lower-income households with more goods imported from abroad.

Still, trade is leaving too many individuals and communities behind, the report said. "Adjustment to trade can bring a human and economic downside that is frequently concentrated, sometimes harsh, and has too often become prolonged."

But rather than attacking the rules-based system and raising barriers, the institutions said governments must do more to help workers make the transition to new jobs, including through wage assistance.

Write to Ian Talley at and Andrea Thomas at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 10, 2017 16:32 ET (20:32 GMT)

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