VJIL Symposium: Introducing Sungjoon Cho’s “Beyond Rationality: A Sociological Construction of the World Trade Organization” – A Critique of “Interpretation and Institutional Choice at the WTO” by Professors Shaffer and Trachtman

by Sungjoon Cho

[Sungjoon Cho is currently a Visiting Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law. He is also Professor of Law and Norman and Edna Freehling Scholar, Chicago-Kent College of Law.]

This post is part of the Virginia Journal of International Law Symposium, Volume 52, Issues 1 and 2. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

Thank you to Opinio Juris and the Virginia Journal of International Law (VJIL) for putting together this discussion on my recent VJIL Article – “Beyond Rationality: A Sociological Construction of the World Trade Organization,” which critiques the approach taken by Professor Gregory Shaffer and Professor Joel P. Trachtman in their VJIL Article, “Interpretation and Institutional Choice at the WTO.”

The dominant paradigm under which one can comprehend an international organization, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), has been “rationalism.” Under a rationalist framework, the WTO is an instrument (institutional arrangement) that its creators (states) programmed ex ante to promote freer trade by facilitating interstate cooperation, reducing transaction costs and stabilizing their expectation. In a nutshell, all that the WTO is about and it does is somehow reduced to its members’ (rational) “choice” informed by material interests, such as power and utilities. Rationalism, which connotes both neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism, provides a powerful heuristic of the operation of the WTO. Its characteristic parsimony has also generated a number of excellent research projects, including the one provided by Professors Joel Trachtman and Gregory Shaffer.

Nonetheless, rationalism does not exhaust perspectives on the WTO. States are not mere sophisticated machines, analogous to the Architect in the movie Matrix. They are also “social” actors that “interpret,” not necessarily calculate, others’ behaviors and mold their own based on their interpretation. Their actions are in fact deeply embedded in their socio-cultural surroundings, including the institutional sphere given by the WTO. Under this sociological (“constructivist” under the International Relations theory) framework, the WTO is defined not as a contract (Gesellschaft), but as a “community” (Gemeinschaft). Within the WTO’s community, its members convey their thoughts and arguments (ideas) through an iterative and ritualized process (discourse) and eventually institutionalize those ideas as norms. These two different frameworks – rationalism and constructivism – may generate two different explanations on the WTO and its operation. For example, under the conventional (rationalist) framework, the recent failure of the Doha (Development) Round is simply a deal fell apart. Under the constructivist framework, however, one might say that the cause of “development” never morphed into the WTO’s social structure based on which WTO members self-evaluate their particular behaviors as appropriate or not.

Finally, a word of caution. I am not arguing that the new sociological paradigm should supplant the rationalist approach. Nor do I suggest that the blind spots of the rationalist framework render it obsolete. No paradigm is perfect. What I attempt to do is to contribute to a more complete understanding of the WTO by providing an alternative paradigm and narrative. Notably, it is also important to identify a zone of convergence where the two paradigms may harmonize.


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