The World Trade Organization opened Pandora’s Box last week, issuing its first-ever ruling on “national security.” The decision addressed the increasingly central questions of whether and how states can claim national security to justify the imposition of trade restrictions. The result was a Solomonic declaration that affirmed the right of governments to use that justification while asserting that the WTO has the authority to determine the validity of that claim. While gratifying for advocates of liberal trade, it anticipates a more pitched battle over the same issues. The challenge is to address problems at the WTO that have motivated governments to use this exemption.

All treaties and international institutions include “escape clauses” that allow member governments to invoke national security to retain national sovereignty and authority in certain cases. There is an expectation, however, that such rationalizations will be used only in exceptional cases; if this power is abused, then those commitments are meaningless.

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