| Trade, Law and Development
Epistemic Contests and the Legitimacy of the World Trade Organization: The Brazil–USA Cotton Dispute and the Incremental Balancing of Interests
The World Trade Organization (WTO) features prominently in studies of international institutions, often cast either as a tool of rich-world domination over the poorer South or as a neutral mediator facilitating a tariff-free world of economic prosperity. This article instead analyses how the WTO has sought legitimacy for itself and for the underlying institution of free trade in the midst of questions regarding its organizational mandate and management of international trade negotiations. Historically, legitimacy for GATT and later the WTO was understood to derive from expanding membership and success at major trade round negotiations. In the past decade, and despite a lack of progress in the Doha Round, legitimacy has been built through institutional deepening by means of dispute resolution processes. This shift, I argue, raises epistemic questions of expertise, the relationship of models to real-world outcomes, and methods for bounding disputes over scientific facts. Based on a case study of the Brazil-Upland Cotton dispute and a trend analysis of over 400 total WTO disputes, I find that the WTO dispute settlement process is helping to legitimize the institution of free trade through its public display of rational authority and neutral expertise. At the same time, dispute panels have begun to pass judgment on issues of econometric and scientific uncertainty. As a result, the basis for the broader legitimacy of the WTO is shifting from questions of representation that have long drawn attention to epistemic issues, especially concerning the design of international trade models. The article thus provides insights on the resolution of disputes in global trade while contributing to our understanding of the evolving role of modeling at international organizations.