The soon-to-be-launched Geneva Trade Platform (GTP), an initiative by the Center for Trade and Economic Integration at the Graduate Institute, wants to revitalize the global conversation around trade. The Geneva Trade Week (GTW), its first event, will be held between September 28 and October 2 and aims to fill the void left by the cancellation of the WTO 2020 Public Forum. It might well provide a jolt to the Public Forum and open a new path towards a "digitalization of International Geneva" that could lead to a more inclusive, more diverse conversation around global issues and eventually help shape the future of multilateral institutions. The Geneva Observer talked to self-confessed "trade geek" Dmitry Grozoubinski, newly appointed Executive Director of the Geneva Trade Platform.
Philippe Mottaz: What is the origin of the Geneva Trade Week?
Dmitry Grozounbinski: "The genesis of the idea lies with the World Trade Organization’s Public Forum and the vision behind it. Absent special efforts, the trade policy conversation can be really insular and opaque, and not just to the general public. Even trade practitioners can find it hard to keep up with what's going on in trade policy generally, and at the WTO specifically. The Public Forum is the annual marquee event for closing that knowledge gap, and its cancellation leaves a significant void at a critical time.
When the cancellation was announced, the Geneva Graduate Institute’s Professors Richard Baldwin and Joost Pauwelyn were in the final stages of preparations for the launch of the Geneva Trade Platform. The Platform, of which I’m now privileged to serve as Executive Director, was conceived as being all about breaking down silos, bringing people together, and using the tremendous capacity of Geneva to offer something of genuine use to the trade policy conversation. It, therefore, made perfect sense to immediately volunteer the Platform as a convener in the Public Forum’s temporary absence. An imperfect substitute, given the comparative sizes of the organizations involved, but we hope a useful and innovative one nevertheless.“
Is it your hope that the format of the Geneva Trade Week, mostly virtual, will actually contribute to a broader representativity than the Public Forum is able to offer?
"Well, and I say this as someone who adores Geneva, attending the WTO Public Forum from abroad is a costly proposition. Even the most passionate and engaged trade policy stakeholder would have to carefully consider the cost of flights, accommodation, and daily costs before committing to spending a week in Geneva in late September. This calculation becomes even more acute for session participants and speakers, many of whom may only be asked to speak for 15 minutes over the course of the week. Now granted, the WTO and many of the organizations and Missions in town do offer support to help get more diverse voices to the Public Forum. However, looking at the over 120 submissions we have received, and the hundreds of speakers nominated to participate in them, my experience as a former delegate and five-time Public Forum attendee, suggests we’ll be able to digitally include many voices would not have made it to Geneva in person.”
You also seem to be putting an emphasis on broadening the conversation to issues not traditionally associated with trade?
"Yes, first because that’s happening already. Activists, stakeholders, and businesses are thinking about the implications of trade on everything, whether the WTO has a work program on it or not. Second, because right now we're seeing fundamental questions being asked about the underlying postulates of the WTO and how these intersect with geopolitics, sustainable development, gender, climate change and social justice. Recent years have seen an expansion of awareness among trade wonks that you can’t neatly ring-fence “pure” trade issues the way we did in the past. For example, as late as 5-6 years ago, the trade policy community generally agreed that women's economic empowerment was important but felt it wasn’t something you could contribute to through gender provisions in international trade rules. Today, we find gender chapters in most modern trade agreements and it’s a huge part of the agenda. The same is true in other areas. Negotiations are being much more proactive in using trade policy to pursue objectives like combatting climate change, fighting pandemics, the promulgation of environmental goods, and so on. In today’s interconnected world, there is a trade angle to almost every aspect of public life. It's critical we break silos where trade geeks like me are sitting in our little fortress, the climate change people in another, the business community in a third, and the economic empowerment specialists in a fourth. We must be talking to each other, and we must be acting in a joined-up way. The challenges of our times, not to mention the public, demand it."
So you are also looking for new and different voices to transform the substance of the conversation about trade?
"For Geneva Trade Week, we're juggling two objectives; the trade policy discussion has some absolute Titans, who are the trade public intellectuals, brilliant academics, senior policymakers, and top lawyers and who are consistently invited to inform the debate, including at the WTO Public Forum. It is really important Geneva Trade Week features them prominently. But we also want to use this opportunity to elevate voices that might otherwise struggle to be heard, whether because they are rising stars with more junior-sounding titles, less well-known thinkers, or simply from organizations you don’t automatically think of when brainstorming panelists for a trade session. Geneva Trade Week has made it a core objective to offer them a platform to be heard and noticed."
There are some voices today arguing that the WTO cannot be the forum for such a broad discussion, that it might fade into the background.
"I would push against that idea. If you want to have a legally binding trade rule that applies to the overwhelming majority of the world's economies, there is simply no substitute for the WTO. There are serious challenges at the WTO, but they are largely political and reflective of the tensions around trade policy domestically in key economies and internationally between superpowers, rather than an inherent failing of the WTO either as a concept or institution."
(This interview was edited for length and clarity)