The World Trade Organization is struggling to balance the interests of wealthy countries, such as the United States, with those of China and other less-developed countries.
The 11th World Trade Organization ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, has failed to reach any agreements after the United States refused to cooperate.
Even minor proposals were held up by the U.S. negotiating team and a number of wealthy countries pushing what critics called a "self-serving" agenda, resulting in the lack of any meaningful ministerial statement.
"Members cannot even agree to stop subsidizing illegal fishing. Horrendous," European Union Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malstrom posted on Twitter on Wednesday. "Destructive behavior by several large countries made results impossible."
While the United States has long been the most powerful force within the WTO, and has often used the organization to advance its economic interests, the Trump administration's "America First" approach has been hanging like a pall over this year's negotiations.
Going into the meeting, the United States accused the organization of being unfair to U.S. interests and too easy on certain developing countries.
"We cannot sustain a situation in which new rules can only apply to a few and that others will be given a pass in the name of self-proclaimed development status," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said, noting he would not seek any major agreements during the week.
Advocates say the WTO's current "crisis of legitimacy" is the result of an increasing inability to balance wealthy countries' demands that their commercial interests be protected – first and foremost, the interests of tech and e-commerce firms – from the demands of poorer countries to address development concerns.
"It is quite disappointing that the rich countries continue to block the more pro-poor, development-oriented agenda under the Doha Development Round, including those on agriculture, which principles were agreed upon as early as 2001," said Tony Salvador of the SENTRO Labor Union in the Philippines.
"At the same time, these rich countries are trying to push for self-serving negotiations on new issues such as e-commerce and investment facilitation. Ironically, the rich are yet again calling these new issues as 'developmental,' shamelessly telling the world that they are meant to benefit the developing and least developed countries."
The conference ended without a ministerial statement, an outcome that civil society groups deemed a victory given the pro-development affirmations of past conferences which will remain upheld by the WTO.
"The WTO failed again to deliver on development, and put the needs of people, farmers, workers, and vulnerable people at the center of its concerns," said Nabil Abdo of the Arab NGO Network for Development, a network with members and partners in 12 Arab countries.
"The MC 11 failed due to the insistence of some powerful developed countries to prioritize corporate profit and tech giants over food security and sovereignty, the ability to design national policies, and most importantly the interests of people.”
Lighthizer offered a clear jab at China when he criticized what he called the "sad performance of many members in notification and transparency."
A rapidly developing China has found itself the biggest target of the Trump administration's drive to put 'America First' in the global trade arena. The United States has refused to recognize China as a "market economy" within the WTO: U.S. Treasury Undersecretary David Malpass recently claimed that the heavy state hand at play in Chinese industries "distorts markets."
China, however, has maintained that it is abiding by WTO terms and seeks global cooperation.
Contrary to U.S. claims that the WTO is "unfair," the organization has frequently been criticized for acting as an arm of United States and corporate interests.
This week in Buenos Aires, the WTO meeting met with mass demonstrations organized by the Confluencia Fuera OMC (No More Confluence With the WTO), which unites workers, socialists, feminists, campesinos and students opposed to the WTO and Argentine President Mauricio Macri's neoliberal reforms.
Six of the protesters were detained following a demonstration on Wednesday that led to confrontations with police.
Citing vague security-related excuses, Macri's government denied entry to over 60 representatives of NGOs and social organizations from the global Our World Is Not for Sale (OWINFS) network who planned to participate in the demonstrations.
Protest events included academic panels and seminars on regional integration and economic alternatives to the unrestricted free reign of capital, but the civil society groups instead faced the denial of their accreditation and at least two cases where advocates were held at the border and subsequently deported by Argentine border security personnel.