International Trade Law Research Guide

This guide features resources on international trade law.

From the GATT to the WTO: A Brief Overview

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) traces its origins to the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, which laid the foundations for the post-World War II financial system and established two key institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  The conference delegates also recommended the establishment of a complementary institution to be known as the International Trade Organization (ITO), which they envisioned as the third leg of the system.

The United States and the United Kingdom spearheaded the initiative at the newly formed United Nations to draft a charter for the proposed ITO.  These negotiations concluded with the signing of the Havana Charter in March of 1948.  The Havana Charter never entered into force, primarily because the U.S. Senate failed to ratify it.  As a result, the ITO was stillborn.

Meanwhile, parallel negotiations were conducted on a multilateral agreement for reciprocal reductions in tariff barriers.  These negotiations resulted in the signing of the GATT on November 30, 1947.  A sufficient number of the signatory nations, including the U.S., ratified the GATT for it to enter into force on January 1, 1948, under a “Protocol of Provisional Application” while negotiations on the ITO charter continued.  The GATT survived the ITO’s demise, but it lacked a coherent institutional structure, since the negotiators had expected the agreement to be subsumed under the ITO’s umbrella. 

Despite its institutional deficiencies, the GATT managed to function as a de facto international organization, sponsoring eight rounds of multilateral trade negotiations.  The Uruguay Round, conducted from 1987 to 1994, culminated in the Marrakesh Agreement, which established the World Trade Organization (WTO).  The WTO incorporates the principles of the GATT and provides a more enduring institutional framework for implementing and extending them.

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To locate additional resources on the history and evolution of the GATT and the WTO from the Georgetown Law Library's collection, use the Advanced Search and select Law Library Catalog.  Then select Subject as the search field and search for one of the following subject headings:

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Secondary Sources on GATT/WTO History