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Locked In?

Last month, I attended a two-day conference on regulatory reform and international standards at the OECD(1) in Paris. I also met with the U.S. Ambassador to the OECD and gave a small tutorial to some 14 Foreign Service officers at the United States Embassy.

It was an interesting trip, and it gave me a lot to think about. At the OECD meeting I listened to trade policy officials, regulators, people from standards bodies, business groups, and others discussing international standards in the context of the triennial review of the WTO TBT(2) Agreement that is scheduled for this year.

The WTO TBT Agreement is an important document, and I plan to explore it in more detail in a subsequent article, but simply put, it prescribes the use of international standards as a deterrent to barriers to international trade. It also obligates its member governments to use international standards as the basis for technical regulations (with notable exceptions). Dialogue and debate is particularly interesting in a world body like the WTO, because participants’ views are influenced by history, cultural peculiarities, and ideologies. To complicate it further, WTO members are governments, each with a political agenda. It is a forum where agreement is hard-won—and the TBT Agreement is admittedly an accomplishment. But the underlying principle of binding its members to recognized international standards is not a panacea for unfair trade practices.

There are limits to what we can do with this principle because it presupposes the solution to every problem. It places the cart before the horse. What do we do, for instance, with experience gained, opportunities afforded by innovation, and advances of technology that cannot easily make their way into international standards? What do we do with the better ways we find of doing things that the international system is not ready for? What do we do with the cutting edge of technology, or the ability to make rapid revisions when we cannot fit them into the recognized international system? We opt for one of the loopholes in the Agreement, or we simply don’t comply. It is a telling situation when two out of three of the world’s greatest economic powers, the United States and Japan, are experiencing difficulties implementing this Agreement.

A vibrant economy and a government that provides a high degree of health and safety and a viable, sustainable environment for its citizens needs more than a principle, or predetermined solutions, or a label that says “international and therefore free from obstacles to trade.” It needs the right to choose the best for its people. If that is a recognized international standard, so be it. If it is something else, so be it as well. I believe standards should facilitate trade, not inhibit it, and I don’t believe standards should be used as unnecessary obstacles to international trade. But we need to think about how we want to achieve that. I can’t speak for others and for other governments, but as an American, I can’t imagine a regime without choices. And as a standards professional, I can’t imagine formulating the solution before I understand the problem. And yet, it seems as if this is exactly what has happened.

James A. Thomas

1 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
2 World Trade Organization Technical Barriers to Trade

Copyright 2000, ASTM

ASTM President, Jim Thomas

"What do we do with experience gained, opportunities afforded by innovation, and advances of technology that cannot easily make their way into international standards?"

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Jim Thomas

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