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Category winner: Trump Says the WTO is a Disaster

This case won the Economics, Politics and Business Environment category at The Case Centre Awards and Competitions 2020. #CaseAwards2020
The case

WhitehouseWho – the protagonist

Donald Trump, President of the United States of America.


The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an intergovernmental organization that is concerned with the regulation of international trade between nations.


Trump is an outspoken critic of the WTO, free trade and trade agreements, standing out during the presidential campaign for his America-first policies.

Trump’s stance is influenced by factors such as large trade deficits with China, while he views China and other countries as treating America as a dumping ground.


Trump’s preference is for bilateral agreements rather than being part of multi-country initiatives such as the Paris Climate Agreement, NATO and the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the 11 Pacific Rim countries.


In 2015, the WTO received its 500th dispute to settle. Some members were already frustrated by the WTO’s inability to force a country to act that violated rules and refused to make amends.

In January 2017, Trump came into power, and ever since has attempted to distance himself from bodies like the WTO.

Key quote

US-China“We have trade deficits with China that are through the roof. They’re so big and so bad that it’s embarrassing to say what the number is.” – President Trump.

What next?

What are the advantages of bilateral to multilateral trade deals? Is Trump right in thinking that the WTO is a disaster?

Interested in finding out more?

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Trump Says the WTO is a Disaster
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Teaching note
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The author


Peter Debaere

Peter discusses what it means to win this award and why Donald Trump is such a popular case subject.

Cherished prize

Peter said: “I cherish the award for many reasons.

“As a case teacher, I enjoy the recognition that comes with the award, and I know that my colleagues here at the Darden School of Business, who all teach primarily with cases, value this award.

“More broadly, I think rewarding cases is important. In my view, cases and case teaching have an important role to play in the ongoing transformation of university education through, among other things, the internet. Case discussions and Socratic ways of teaching (‘the flipped class room’) bring about learning experiences in a physical class that cannot easily be replicated online. This award is an ally in promoting student-centred learning, and as such is welcome.”

trumpTrump touching a nerve

Peter continued: “The topic ‘US trade policy under the Trump administration’ is current and has touched a nerve and plays a role in the popularity of the case. The President of the United States has a fair amount of discretion in trade policy. Like no other president before him, Donald Trump has used trade policy to engage other countries. Just think about the trade war with China, the renegotiation of NAFTA, the tension over trade with Europe. And for sure, there is a strong urge in students to discuss and try to make sense of this fairly unusual approach.

“It is also possible that educators appreciate the technical note on the economics of the GATT/WTO that makes explicit the economic theory that can help frame the class discussion."

twitterCase challenges

He added: “The main challenge (and sometimes frustration) for anyone following the trade policy, or the policies more generally, of the current administration is their fluidity and sometimes lack of focus. Many policy measures are announced by tweets. They are often short on details, subject to lots of changes, and not always consistent with other stated policy objectives of the administration. It is a challenge to make sense of this maelstrom of proposals, and one does not want to fall into the trap of seeking coherence when sometimes there is none.

“It took me a while to figure out that the theory of GATT/WTO was a good way to approach what we experience in the international arena. It is the case that the United States is a big player and has leverage – the president clearly realises this. We, however, live in a multilateral world in which unilateral actions by a big player tend to be ineffective especially in the long run, as countries can retaliate, or decide no longer to cooperate. It is exactly with such a world in mind that the WTO and the GATT were designed.”

The making of a good case

Peter concluded: “For me, a good case is often one that evokes through its specific circumstances and details a broader point. I typically seek this combination of what is specific and what is general. What is specific makes an issue/question tangible, relevant, current and exciting for students. What is more general anchors the case in the framework of the class. For a case discussion to function well, it helps when the case is well anchored in the theoretical framework of the class. It is a misunderstanding that case teaching is just a discussion.

“From a pragmatic point of view, I often try to write cases about topics that I am doing research on. In recent years, next to international trade, my research has focused on the economics of water. I have found that writing and developing classes on specific water treaties, wastewater utilities, water or markets has helped me tremendously to come to grasp with a broad topic such as water.”

About the author

Peter Debaere is Professor of Business Administration at University of Virginia Darden School of Business.
e DebaereP@darden.virginia.edu


View all the 2020 winners