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Time to Take Stock Again
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 August 2006 Plain Talk for a New Generation
James A. Thomas, President, ASTM International

E-mail your comments to James Thomas

Go to other Plain Talk for a New Generation articles.

Time to Take Stock Again

In August 2000, SN published a Plain Talk column titled Time to Take Stock. It was not the abbreviated message that usually appears on the president’s page, but a full-length analysis, and it touched on two things: 1) the second triennial review of the World Trade Organization’s Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement, and 2) the International Organization for Standardization/European Committee for Standardization (ISO/CEN) agreement, known as the Vienna Agreement. There were issues related to both these events that went to the heart of ASTM International’s operations, philosophy, and internationality.

Recently, a colleague asked to see that article posted online again, and it occurred to me that his suggestion was based on the assumption that things were the same as they had been in 2000. To be sure, there are situations and viewpoints in the world that are still as they were in 2000. But, when viewed against the backdrop of the present, ASTM International is in a different universe. Things have not only changed, they’ve changed enormously.

The ASTM International staff and its board of directors and members are undoubtedly aware of incremental changes in our organization and in the changing perceptions of us around the world. But it wasn’t until I started to take stock again that I realized the depth and breadth of those changes, and came face to face with how far removed we are from the world that existed in the year 2000.

The WTO and International Standards

In May 2002, the WTO/TBT Committee formally issued a revision to its Decisions and Recommendations Adopted Since 1 January 1995.1 Section IX of that revision contains the decision of the committee that sets out Principles for the Development of International Standards. This document clarifies the committee’s thinking as to what constitutes an international standard that will make the maximum contribution to the achievement of the trade-facilitating objectives of the agreement. The committee states that:

Adverse trade effects might arise from standards emanating from international bodies as defined in the Agreement which had no procedures for soliciting input from a wide range of interests. Bodies operating with open, impartial and transparent procedures, that afforded an opportunity for consensus among all interested parties in the territories of at least all Members, were seen as more likely to develop standards which were effective and relevant on a global basis and would thereby contribute to the goal of the Agreement to prevent unnecessary obstacles to trade.

The principles, which concern transparency, openness, impartiality and consensus, relevance and effectiveness, coherence and developing country interests, are set out in detail to clarify and strengthen the concept of international standards under the agreement. In 2000, these were exactly the principles under which ASTM operated. Except one: technical assistance to developing countries.

Technical Assistance: The MOU Program

The intent of the principle of technical assistance is that more affluent standards organizations should offer assistance to countries that cannot easily take part in the development of international standards. In 2001, ASTM International initiated its memorandum of understanding program. National standards bodies that enter into an MOU with ASTM International may designate technical experts from their country to participate as full voting members in the ASTM standards development process at no cost. A full set of ASTM standards is provided to the NSB every year.

As of this writing, ASTM International has signed MOUs with the standards bodies of 47 developing countries. In addition, ASTM technical experts have been sent to more than 22 developing countries to train local experts, and ASTM has offered partnership arrangements to local organizations that include technical training courses.2 ASTM International finances its technical assistance program solely, that is, without assistance from the World Trade Organization or any government source.

Outreach and Education

ASTM International is an active and vital participant in the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology Standards in Trade Program. Standards in Trade workshops are designed by NIST to provide timely information to foreign standards officials on U.S. practices in standards and conformity assessment. The objectives of the workshops are to 1) familiarize participants with U.S. technology and practices in metrology, standardization, and conformity assessment; 2) describe the roles of the U.S. government and the private sector in developing and implementing standards; and 3) develop professional contacts as a basis for strengthening technical ties and enhancing trade. Starting in 2002 and averaging two a year, ASTM International has participated in Standards in Trade workshops involving roadway infrastructure and safety in Israel, the gas and oil sectors in India, building codes and standards in the Americas, and fire research in China, among others.

Free Trade Agreements

There are some things we can’t change, but we are changing the things we can. For years, ASTM International carried a message to Washington, D.C., testifying in congressional and agency hearings on the drafting of language in international trade agreements. We wrote letters and statements, called on government officials and spoke whenever and wherever we could, calling attention to the fact that our international trade agreements were excluding our standards process. All of the regional trade agreements with standards provisions entered into by the United States had effectively excluded the use of international standards from organizations domiciled in the United States. We were persistent in presenting our case for matching WTO principles. We won the support of the U.S. Trade Representative and its representative to the WTO/TBT Committee. ASTM — and the USTR — now work together to develop language in trade agreements that does not exclude (or suggest the exclusion of) globally recognized processes such as ASTM’s that allow individuals and governments to participate directly and equally in developing international standards.

Since 2004, the U.S. Trade Representative has insisted on the inclusion of a strong Technical Barriers to Trade Chapter in all of the free trade agreements entered into by the United States. TBT Chapters commit signatory countries to use international standards that are consistent with the principles of the WTO/TBT Agreement instead of — as other trade agreements before them have — specifying ISO and IEC as role models. This is a major step forward.

On Aug. 5, 2004, the United States signed the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Seven countries in the Americas have now agreed to language that effectively includes the use of international standards from U.S.-domiciled international standards organizations.3 This is a good place to acknowledge the hard work and tireless efforts on the part of the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office and express our sincere thanks for its support.

On World Standards Day 2005, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, invited me (along with ambassadors of the CAFTA-DR) to present our viewpoints on the implementation of the trade agreement. As a result, ASTM’s working relationships with Central American standards authorities have become stronger and continue to grow, along with more effective uses of ASTM standards in the region.

International Regulations

Is the notion still around that using ASTM standards in technical regulations will place a country in violation of its WTO/TBT obligations? Yes. Old ideas die hard. But they do die, given time and exposure to standards whose quality and relevance make a difference in the everyday lives of people around the world. At this writing, 3,036 ASTM standards have been adopted as either the basis of national standards or referenced in regulation by 63 countries outside of the United States. And the range of technology is practically ASTM-wide. These international standards emanate from 114 ASTM technical committees and 777 subcommittees.

The Aerospace Industry Speaks

There are also unmistakable signs that global industries are refuting the idea that international standards must come from a single source. The following is taken from a position paper by the Strategic Standardization Forum for Aerospace:

Increasingly government policies, legislatures, and even contracts are requiring the use of “international” standards to define and assess products, and then defining “international” standards as only those produced by certain specific bodies, most often ISO [International Organization for Standardization], IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission], and ITU [International Telecommunications Union]. U.S. aerospace products are defined and built using a vast range of standards including company, government, and industry standards, and are selected on the basis of merit, not source.

Companies, governments, and industries select and use standards for a variety of reasons — to establish product superiority; to facilitate trade; to ensure quality, reliability, repeatability, interoperability; to comply with local, state, regional, national, or international regulation; and for many other reasons. The aerospace industry is no different in this regard. Arbitrarily forcing aerospace designers, regulators, and customers to select standards from certain standards developing organizations based on their location or name, or on the process used to create the standards, would impose a radical change seemingly unrelated to any clear objective. The industry has always chosen standards considering the myriad factors that influence such selection in order to meet or exceed a wide range of requirements that include performance, safety, and quality, as well as national and international regulation and certification.

ASTM International Membership

In 2000, ASTM had 4,528 members from outside U.S. borders. Today, there are 6,269, a 38 percent increase in the number of international members; 125 countries are represented in ASTM International. This increase is so much more than a number. It means that international technical experts are experiencing new freedoms of expression and now know what it is like to enter a system through a wider portal of openness. It means that they are now empowered by direct participation. It means that they are part of a process that exists only to serve their needs, a process that is inclusive, easy to access, and efficient. Some are experiencing for the first time the thrill of cutting-edge technology, and discovering that there are also ASTM standards that can serve all levels of need and capacity.

Sitting beside their colleagues from around the world, these new ASTM International members are learning that technology cannot be contained for long, and that it can be separated from national mindsets and geopolitical goals. They, their governments, citizens, and industries are beginning to understand what it means to have flexibility and choices. These things, more than all our words, are changing the world’s view of standardization.

International Sales

Lest we forget, ASTM International is supported by the sale of its documents. This organization is financially healthy and vibrant because of these sales. But our sales figures also indicate usage patterns. At present, 42.3 percent of revenues are derived from outside the United States. International sales have increased more than 10 percent in the last three years. These global customers, it should be pointed out, are not solely comprised of U.S. firms abroad, but are more likely to come from multinational firms such as Airbus, BAE, Bombardier, ABB, Total, Shell, and the national oil companies of many countries. ASTM International also has sales and distribution arrangements with nearly all of its 47 MOU partners and a large number of national standards bodies around the world, including those of France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Korea, Russia and Spain.

Kicking the Can Down the Road

It has now been six years since we first took stock. As I said at the outset of this article, there are situations and viewpoints in the world that are still as they were in 2000. But when viewed against the backdrop of the present, ASTM International is in a different universe. We have, as they say, kicked the can down the road.

Three Open House conferences brought the heads of standards bodies from the Western Hemisphere, the Asia Pacific Region, the Middle East, North Africa, the Republic of South Africa, and India to ASTM headquarters for open, candid discussions. ASTM International reopened its Washington office, engaged representation in Mexico, and hired a Middle East consultant. There is now an ASTM International presence and office in China and we have hosted several Chinese standards experts. Information is being disseminated in languages other than English through translations, bilingual staff members, and SN in Chinese and Spanish.

The staff of ASTM International has answered invitations to speak and make presentations in so many countries and on so many occasions that we have lost count. The ideas we have carried around the world — of freedom and choice, of quality and relevance, of inclusion and service — are now being carried by those who have heard us.

ASTM International’s electronic tools for standards development are becoming more sophisticated and effective. More than 3,100 students from around the world are taking advantage of ASTM International’s free student membership. This category of membership did not exist in 2000. The ASTM board has held meetings in Mexico City, Berlin, and Toronto and has become more diverse than ever with members from Europe, South America, and Asia. Next year, the board will welcome a member from the Middle East. Its October meeting will be held in Beijing.

Part of the Global Trading System

ASTM International still faces challenges and obstacles to the use of its standards in places around the world. But as we take stock in 2006, we see clearly that despite the obstacles, and despite beliefs to the contrary, ASTM International is irrefutably a part of the global trading system. The benefits to global industries and their successes are not and will not be diminished by issues that have nothing to do with the quality of standards or how well they serve the marketplace.

In 2000, we addressed attitudes that questioned the credibility of international standards development as it is structured in U.S.-based organizations. To let it pass without comment at that time would have been wrong.

Our first responsibility, however, was to do everything we were doing already and do it better, because our principles were already in place. Our first responsibility was to this organization and to its members, to make it the best place in the world to develop standards. That’s what we’ve been doing over the past six years. Our progress and our increasing internationality is what happened in the meantime.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International


1 G/TBT/1/Rev.8.
2 See ASTM International’s compliance with principles for the development of international standards here.
3 Signatories to CAFTA-DR (Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua) and Chile, whose FTA codified the 2000 decision of the TBT Committee (Rev. 7).

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