Shadow Negotiators
How UN Organizations Shape the Rules of World Trade for Food Security
Matias E. Margulis



THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION (WTO) has become a central flash point for global political battles over the governance of agriculture and food security. Agriculture is among the most contentious areas of global trade politics—so contentious, in fact, that it was excluded from the international trade regime for nearly fifty years. The controversy surrounding agricultural trade stems in part from the fact that food is not just a widget or commodity like any other: agriculture plays a critical role in food security and economic development and is essential for human survival. Agriculture, trade, and food security are deeply intertwined, especially in the global South, where over 2.5 billion people—nearly a third of the world’s population—depend directly on agriculture for their livelihoods (IFAD and UNEP 2013). Food insecurity, which exists when individuals lack access to sufficient food, remains a pressing global problem, with two billion food-insecure people worldwide and that number rising (FAO 2020). Access to food is recognized as a human right in international law, and there is a concern that trade liberalization and global trade rules may risk infringing on the right to food (Fakhri 2015; Ferguson 2018).

The creation, in 1995, of the WTO and its Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) was a transformative event that brought agriculture and food under the authority of the trade regime for the first time. However, the issue of how food security should be treated under WTO law remains bitterly contested. At the core of this political contest are conflicting views of whether agricultural trade liberalization bolsters or undermines food security. The principal goal of the WTO is to liberalize trade along market-based lines, but agricultural trade liberalization can have both positive and negative effects on food security that are highly context specific (Brooks and Matthews 2015; Mary 2019). Moreover, states now make agriculture and food policy—including policy related to food security—under the shadow of global trade rules. WTO rules constrain the policy space available for states to intervene in food and agriculture markets (including through tariffs and other trade barriers, subsidies, and public procurement and distribution) and may therefore have significant implications for world food security.

What is more, WTO rules governing agriculture and food are the product of interstate negotiations, which are shaped by economic interests and power asymmetries. Global trade rulemaking is dominated by powerful states, many of which—such as the US and EU—are agricultural exporters and not food insecure, and as a result multilateral trade negotiations have typically prioritized opening markets rather than ensuring food security or protecting vulnerable groups (Clapp 2015; Margulis 2017). Political conflict over how to treat food security at the WTO is considerable, and multiple Southern governments have threatened to exit multilateral trade negotiations out of stated concerns that global trade rules risked increasing hunger within their own borders.1 Conflict over trade and food security has also galvanized global civil society actors seeking to stop the WTO’s drive toward deeper agricultural trade liberalization, most notably La Via Campesina, the world’s largest transnational social movement, whose goal is to “get the WTO out of agriculture.”

The expansion of the WTO’s authority has led to potential conflicts between its goal of liberalizing trade and the goals of other international organizations (IOs) involved in the global governance of food security. In this book, I argue that other IOs have not been passive in the face of this shift but have responded by seeking to influence global trade rulemaking. Thus not only states, private sector actors, and civil society are contesting global trade rules at the WTO, but also other IOs. Drawing on four cases—the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (SRRTF)—I show that multiple UN actors have intervened in the trade regime in an effort to steer global trade rulemaking toward outcomes that protect world food security. These IOs inserted themselves into the politics of multilateral trade negotiations in order to contest specific trade rules being created by states. UN actors were motivated to intervene because they anticipated that certain proposed trade rules would worsen food insecurity—an outcome that they perceived as running counter to their own missions and social purpose to fight hunger. Moreover, I show that these actions had meaningful effects on the trade regime: UN actors have had a discernable influence on the discourse, agendas, and outcomes of global trade rulemaking.

At a conceptual level, this book contributes to our understanding of IOs by identifying an important yet previously unrecognized type of political behavior by IOs that I term intervention. Intervention refers to independent action taken by one IO intended to alter a decision of another organization that it perceives as undermining its ability to achieve its own goals or those of the international community it has been charged to uphold. When successful, IO intervention may help to bring greater coherence to global governance by reducing conflicts among the principles, goals, and rules of different governance regimes. In the cases analyzed in this book, for instance, UN actors successfully inserted food security concerns into global trade rulemaking, thereby reducing conflicts between the trade regime and the agriculture and food, humanitarian assistance, and human rights regimes.

Contributions of the Book

This book contributes to multiple bodies of scholarship: global trade politics, including contestation over global trade rules and the relationship between the multilateral trade system and other areas of global governance; the UN’s role in global economic governance; and theories of IOs and regime complexes.

The Politics of “Trade-and” Conflicts

This book offers important insights into how UN actors are shaping the politics of global trade rulemaking. The WTO is one of the most powerful institutions in global governance: it makes “hard law” that is binding on states and backed by a strong enforcement mechanism (K. Abbott and Snidal 2000; Goldstein and Martin 2000; Goldstein et al. 2001). In contrast to its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the creation of the WTO represented a dramatic expansion in the scope and depth of global trade rules into new areas such as agriculture, services, investment, intellectual property rights, and government procurement (Koremenos, Lipson, and Snidal 2001; Barton et al. 2008). In addition, rather than simply governing trade measures “at the border” (such as tariffs), the WTO’s reach is much wider, as it extends “beyond the border” to govern domestic policies that affect trade (Wade 2003; Rodrik 2018). WTO rules seek to address nontariff barriers and to harmonize domestic policies, standards, and regulations—in areas including state aid (i.e., subsidies), antidumping measures, customs procedures, cross-border mobility, health and safety requirements, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, and technical barriers to trade—in order to promote deep economic integration.

The WTO’s authority goes far beyond the governance of international trade, as its rules have implications for a wide range of different issue areas, making it a “linkage machine” (Alvarez 2002). Indeed, the broad reach of WTO rules has given rise to a number of so-called “trade-and” conflicts, in which the goals of trade liberalization potentially conflict with the goals of other global governance regimes, such as those for the environment, public health, development, labor, and human rights (Eckersley 2004; Joseph 2011; S. Bernstein and Hannah 2012; Friel, Hattersley, and Townsend 2015; Langille 2020). While existing scholarship on the politics of “trade-and” issues has concentrated on the interface of conflict between WTO rules and efforts to protect the environment (Conca 2000; Zelli, Gupta, and van Asselt 2013; Jinnah 2014) and public health (Sell 2001; Shadlen 2004; Chorev 2012b; Scott and Harman 2013), this book demonstrates that food security is a key “trade-and” issue, with the nexus between trade and food security becoming a highly contested issue in multilateral trade negotiations.

Addressing “trade-and” conflicts has become one of the most vexing issues in global trade governance, and a major preoccupation for scholars of international trade (Cottier and Delimatsis 2011; Blanchard 2015; Pauwelyn 2016; Kanade 2017; Krämer-Hoppe 2020; Krisch, Corradini, and Reimers 2020). The expansion in the scope of the WTO’s authority and the binding nature of its rules mean that WTO agreements can potentially come into conflict with, and threaten to undermine, the goals of other global governance institutions. Drawing on analysis of IOs active in the field of food security, I show that other IOs are not passive amid the threat that WTO rules may undermine other important international goals; instead, these IOs have sought to respond to potential “trade-and” conflicts by intervening directly in the WTO’s rulemaking process.

It would be a mistake, however, to view intervention by UN actors as part of the antiglobalization movement in opposition to the WTO. The WTO is seen as a key institution in the project of neoliberal globalization, which has prompted a countermovement, involving labor, environmental, and social justice groups, seeking to push back against its agenda of trade liberalization (McMichael 1996; Chorev 2005; Woods 2006; A. Lang 2011). Civil society opposition to the WTO has been strikingly visible in dramatic mass protests at several WTO meetings (R. O’Brien et al. 2000; J. Smith 2001; Gill 2003; Hopewell 2017). Global battles over trade liberalization are often framed as a clash between states and the market, with the WTO seen as driving the marketization and corporatization of the world economy (McMichael 2014). In the case of agriculture and food, the view that the WTO is a threat to farmers and food security has fueled the rise of the food sovereignty movement. The food sovereignty movement has gained considerable prominence in global food politics, campaigning to abolish the WTO with the aim of reversing agricultural trade liberalization, relocalizing food production, and enabling greater state support to agriculture (Desmarais 2007; H. Bernstein 2014; Andrée et al. 2014; Claeys 2015; Dekeyser, Korsten, and Fioramonti 2018). This has generated a fierce debate within global civil society about whether the goal should be to reject or reform the WTO (Burnett and Murphy 2014; Edelman et al. 2014; Hopewell 2015b; Soper 2020).

As this book will show, UN actors have not intervened out of blanket opposition to the WTO and its agenda of trade liberalization—in fact, some, like the FAO, are strong advocates of agricultural trade liberalization. Instead, interventions by UN actors have been narrowly targeted at altering specific proposed trade rules in order to cushion the potential ill effects of agricultural trade liberalization on food security and vulnerable populations. The behavior of UN actors is therefore in line with reformist efforts to improve global trade rules and not a rejection of the trade regime itself. To the extent it is successful, IO intervention may serve to reduce and ameliorate “trade-and” conflicts in the multilateral trade system.

Who Makes the Global Rules of Trade?

This book also advances our understanding of who makes the rules of global trade. Given the salience of global trade rules to regulation of the global economy and to states’ power and wealth, who gets to make those rules is a central question for scholars of international political economy, international law, and international negotiations (Steinberg 2002; Shaffer 2009; Quark 2013; Block-Lieb and Halliday 2017). Traditionally, scholars have primarily focused on the competing interests and asymmetric capabilities of states to explain the dynamics and outcomes of global trade rulemaking. A state-centric approach is appropriate considering that the WTO is a “member-driven” organization where only states have the formal right to enter into multilateral trade negotiations and undertake binding commitments. Yet scholarship has shown that states are not the sole players shaping international trade law. It is well established that private sector actors, which have direct economic stakes in the outcomes of multilateral trade negotiations, engage in extensive lobbying and seek to exert influence over global trade rules in accordance with their commercial interests (Sell 2003; Woll 2008; Curran and Eckhardt 2017; Ryu and Stone 2018; Milsom et al. 2020). Global civil society organizations are also players in global trade politics, pressuring states to reform global trade rules to address a myriad of social justice, development, and environmental issues (H. Murphy 2010; Steffek 2012; Hanegraaff et al. 2015; Hannah 2015; Hopewell 2017).

While scholars have paid increasing attention to the role of nonstate actors in multilateral trade negotiations, they have largely overlooked the role of IOs in shaping global trade rules. Although the existing literature acknowledges that IOs offer important services to support the trade negotiation process, such as providing information and demand-driven technical assistance (Deere Birkbeck and Marchant 2011; VanGrasstek 2013), IOs are generally not regarded as being consequential to bargaining outcomes, since they are not direct participants in negotiations.2 In this book, I challenge this view by demonstrating that IOs are playing a more active and important role in global trade rulemaking than existing scholarship suggests. I show that the FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and SRRTF, despite lacking a seat at the bargaining table, nonetheless inserted themselves directly into the politics of multilateral trade negotiations on agriculture at the GATT/WTO. While the WTO agriculture negotiations have generated large volumes of scholarship (e.g., Clapp 2006; Daugbjerg and Swinbank 2009; Eagleton-Pierce 2013; Singh and Gupta 2016; Scott 2017), this role of UN actors has been largely overlooked. By demonstrating the active role of UN organizations as influential actors in multilateral trade negotiations, this book contributes to advancing a multiactor approach to the study of global trade rulemaking, in which IOs are important players alongside states, private actors, and global civil society.

The UN in Global Economic Governance

The conventional wisdom suggests that UN organizations are peripheral players when it comes to governing the global economy (Ruggie 2003; Toye and Toye 2004). In creating the postwar international order, states charged the UN with maintaining peace and security, while delegating the management of international economic problems to institutions outside the UN system, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the GATT. Powerful states subsequently resisted efforts to expand the UN’s authority in global economic governance; Northern governments, for example, refused to allow the UN system to play a role in regulating transnational corporations in the context of the global South’s push for a New International Economic Order and severely curtailed the mandate of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) (Krasner 1976; C. Murphy 1983; Taylor and Smith 2007). Powerful states have also kept the UN from playing a greater role in global economic governance by turning to club organizations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or the Group of Seven (G7) and Group of Twenty (G20), to retain control over the international economic agenda, including on trade (Woodward 2009; Kirton, Daniels, and Freytag 2019). While trade has been frequently debated within various UN bodies, the prevailing view is that such “deliberations have not been particularly influential and have certainly not resulted in binding legal instruments” (Finlayson and Zacher 1981, 562).

Since UN organizations lack powers comparable to those of the international economic institutions, scholars have instead focused on the UN’s production of ideas as its key contribution to global economic governance (Emmerij, Jolly, and Weiss 2001). UN organizations have generated and disseminated many important economic ideas, including the terms-of-trade thesis and the concept of “human development” (Toye and Toye 2004; McNeill 2007). By putting ideas out into the world, UN organizations have contributed to changing how actors understand the workings of the global economy and have influenced economic policy debates (Ruggie 2003; Toye and Toye 2004; Thérien and Pouliot 2006; Sagafi-Nejad and Dunning 2008; Ocampo 2018). Yet existing accounts that focus narrowly on the role of UN organizations as wellsprings of ideas elide the issue of their political agency. Emphasizing that UN organizations generate and disseminate ideas but are unable to translate those ideas into rules governing the global economy can be argued to confirm, rather than dispel, the prevailing view of UN organizations as marginal players in global economic governance.

This book challenges the conventional wisdom that UN organizations are not significant actors in global economic governance. I show that UN actors are playing a far more consequential role in global economic governance than typically recognized—not, however, in the traditional manner of being delegated authority by states to make or enforce trade rules, but by intervening to alter the trajectory and results of rulemaking at the GATT/WTO. Despite having no power to make international trade law themselves, I demonstrate that the FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and SRRTF have used their expert, legal, and moral authority (Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Avant, Finnemore, and Sell 2010) to influence global trade rulemaking at the GATT/WTO. As a result, the UN’s contributions to the fight against hunger are not limited to raising global awareness about the state of world food insecurity or delivering food to starving people: UN actors have also taken decisive action to shape the rules governing global trade.

IOs Navigating Complex Global Governance

This book also sheds light on how IOs are responding to increasing complexity in global governance. A striking feature of contemporary global governance is the proliferation of international institutions, now counting in the thousands, that co-govern a plethora of cross-border problems (F. Biermann et al. 2009; K. Abbott, Green, and Keohane 2016; Clarke 2019). As a result, many areas of global governance feature “crazy-quilt” arrangements where authority is diffused among multiple, overlapping international institutions, rather than vested in a single, stand-alone institution or fully integrated regime (Rosenau 2004, 149). These governance arrangements are commonly referred to by scholars as “regime complexes,” a concept originally developed by Kal Raustiala and David Victor (2004) that has provided a leading framework for understanding the changing institutional contours of global governance and its resulting political effects (Alter and Raustiala 2018; Orsini et al. 2019; Kreuder-Sonnen and Zürn 2020).

The system-like properties of regime complexes create new international political dynamics whereby decisions taken in one institution in a regime complex may affect other institutions that have overlapping authority in the relevant issue area. In particular, regime complexes increase the chance of spillover effects because “changes within one institution could reverberate across parallel institutions” (Alter and Meunier 2009, 20). Spillovers in a regime complex may be positive or negative in their effects. Positive spillovers are associated with improvements in IO performance, reduced uncertainty, and more flexible approaches to problem-solving, whereas negative spillovers result in policy incoherence, reduced incentives for cooperation, and/or conflicts across the norms and rules of overlapping institutions (Helfer 2009; T. Johnson and Urpelainen 2012; Gómez-Mera 2016; Henning 2017). Unlike integrated regimes, which by design have mechanisms to resolve conflicts among constituent institutions, regime complexes are notable for their absence of a centralized authority to address problems arising from negative spillovers.

This book contributes to understanding how IOs navigate these dynamics. While the existing literature has focused on the behavior and political strategies of states in regime complexes, the question of how IOs themselves behave in the regime complexes in which they are embedded has received scant scholarly attention. The extant scholarship has primarily viewed IOs as part of the architecture of regime complexesand specifically as sites where states pursue cross-institutional political strategies—rather than as actors in regime complexes with their own goals and capabilities for political action. This is puzzling in light of a well-established body of scholarship on IOs as independent actors in world politics, which has shown that IOs have their own organizational goals and preferences and may utilize their material, ideational, and symbolic capabilities to change the behavior of states and influence global policy (Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Hawkins et al. 2006; Weaver 2008; Chwieroth 2009; Chorev 2012b; Oestreich 2012; Weinlich 2014; Bauer, Knill, and Eckhard 2017).

This book builds on theories of IOs as actors and extends them to explain the political behavior of IOs in regime complexes. Drawing on analysis of the regime complex for food security, in which the authority of the FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and SRRTF overlaps with that of the WTO, I show that IOs are not indifferent to decisions taken by states at other institutions in a regime complex that they anticipate will result in negative consequences for their goals and interests or those of the international community. This book contributes to our understanding of how IOs are navigating the politics of regime complexes by demonstrating novel forms of externally oriented, self-directed political action by IOs with the purpose of altering decision-making by states, not within their own institutions, but at other, overlapping institutions outside their control. Whereas previous scholarship on IOs as actors has focused on how they influence decision-making within their institutions, this book examines how IOs influence decision-making outside their own institutional boundaries and in areas where they have not been delegated formal authority. By identifying and theorizing this previously unrecognized type of IO behavior, this study advances our understanding of how IOs are navigating and responding to institutional proliferation and rising complexity in global governance.

The Argument: Intervention by IOs

This book is the first to identify a new and distinct type of political behavior by IOs in regime complexes: intervention. Intervention occurs when the secretariat of one IO takes action with the intention of altering the trajectory of decision-making at another organization. My overarching argument is that an IO may choose to intervene when it expects that an anticipated decision at another organization will have negative consequences for the goals it has been charged by the international community to uphold. I demonstrate the existence of intervention by IOs through four detailed case studies of actions taken by the FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and SRRTF to influence global trade rulemaking at the GATT/WTO. The case studies will show that these UN actors chose to intervene in multilateral trade negotiations in an effort to alter proposed trade rules that they expected would have negative implications for world food security and vulnerable populations.

Intervention is conceptualized in this book as self-initiated and unsolicited political behavior by an IO—meaning that it is undertaken independently by an IO, rather than at the behest of states. While states create IOs to manage collective problems, and IOs fulfill the mandates and tasks assigned to them by states, IOs are not just the servants of states: they may also act of their own volition (Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Oestreich 2012). However, by choosing to intervene, IOs may find themselves confronting states and challenging their interests, which may result in backlash against their organizations. This book shows that the FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and SRRTF did not intervene on the formal or informal orders of their member states but chose of their own accord to insert themselves into the politics of global trade rulemaking at the GATT/WTO. In each case, I will demonstrate that it was UN officials who conceived, initiated, and executed these interventions. Moreover, intervention by UN actors in the trade regime drew objections from powerful states that did not welcome what they perceived as uninvited forays by IOs into the exclusive domain of interstate bargaining over global trade rules. Indeed, UN actors, most notably the WFP and SRRTF, experienced significant backlash from powerful states that viewed these interventions as undermining their economic interests.

Why do IOs choose to intervene in decision-making at other organizations, thus risking potentially costly backlash? I argue that intervention is driven primarily by an IO’s sense of social purpose. Each IO has a distinct social purpose—most simply understood as its goals for improving the world—which is determined by an organization’s mandate, its history, and the normative orientation of its staff (Ruggie 1982; Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Zürn 2018). In the case of the four UN actors analyzed here, the FAO’s social purpose is to reduce world hunger; the WFP’s mission is to prevent starvation among vulnerable populations; and the OHCHR and SRRTF work to promote and protect the human right to food, which is intrinsically linked to the goal of fighting hunger. I demonstrate that these UN actors were motivated to intervene at the GATT/WTO because they feared that proposed global trade rules would worsen food insecurity, an outcome that they perceived as running counter to their social purpose and the international goal of creating a world free from hunger. In each case, the decision to intervene was driven by the values and principled beliefs of the organization, rather than instrumental motives. Their sense of social purpose led these IOs to determine that intervention was the appropriate course of action. Although these interventions by UN actors at the GATT/WTO dissatisfied many states, their behavior was not an instance of “mission creep” where IOs move away from their mandates (Hall 2016; Littoz-Monnet 2017a). Instead, as the analysis will show, UN officials believed that their interventions were consistent with the mandates delegated to them by states.

Intervention is a distinct type of political behavior that differs from both cooperation and competition among IOs. Intervention is distinct from cooperation, as it does not involve collaboration among two IOs in order to achieve a shared objective, nor is the goal of the intervening IO to aid in the work of the other organization. And unlike competition, intervention does not involve a struggle between IOs, where, for example, one organization sees the other as a threat to its mandate and resources. Instead, intervention is targeted action by one IO directed at influencing a specific decision taken at an overlapping organization over which it has no formal control. The following analysis will demonstrate that the actions by UN organizations were not taken to assist the GATT/WTO secretariat in carrying out its duties, nor were they attempts to supplant the GATT/WTO as a forum for multilateral trade negotiations and dispute settlement or undermine its authority. As I will show, UN organizations intervened at the GATT/WTO in an effort to alter specific proposed global trade rules that they feared would have adverse consequences for food-insecure populations.

Drawing on these cases, I identify four distinct intervention strategies utilized by IOs to influence decision-making by states at other, partially overlapping institutions in a regime complex: mobilizing states, public shaming, invoking alternative legal frameworks, and taking sides. IOs can mobilize states at the target organization to affect change. IOs can use public shaming to pressure states at the other organization to change a prospective decision. They can invoke alternative legal frameworks to present a prospective decision at another organization as inconsistent with international law. And last, an IO can take sides with one group of states at the target organization to tilt the political balance in its favor. These intervention strategies involve IOs employing a combination of moral, expert, and legal authority to exercise influence.

IOs develop these intervention strategies because they have no formal authority or control over other institutions in a regime complex. The FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and SRRTF have no direct control over the WTO, for example, and they cannot simply render null and void the global trade rules that they disagree with. They lack a seat at the bargaining table at the WTO, which is exclusive to states. Only WTO member states have the power to decide global trade rules, meaning that in order to shape global trade rules, UN actors must shape the behavior of states. However, UN actors cannot rely on the typical strategies of influence that they utilize within their own institutions when seeking to alter the trajectory of decision-making at another institution over which they have no formal authority. The most common internally oriented strategies of influence used by IOs, such as manipulating procedural rules and controlling privileged information (Bauer, Knill, and Eckhard 2017; Ege, Bauer, and Wagner 2019), are likely to have limited impact beyond their own institutional boundaries. UN organizations cannot manipulate the procedural rules of multilateral trade negotiations, for instance, because they are not delegated a role in coordinating or managing the bargaining process at the WTO. And since global trade rulemaking is not dependent on information produced by UN organizations, the FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and SRRTF cannot expect to alter negotiating outcomes by withholding or manipulating privileged information provided to WTO members. The inadequacy of their internally oriented strategies for exercising influence spurred UN actors to develop innovative externally oriented strategies—mobilizing states, public shaming, invoking alternative legal frameworks, and taking sides—to gain influence in global trade rulemaking.

This book shows not only that IOs intervene but that their interventions can have important consequences for decision-making at the target IO. To demonstrate the influence of UN organizations on global trade rulemaking, I analyze whether their interventions are successful in altering the discourse, agenda setting, or outcomes of multilateral trade negotiations. These are standard criteria employed by scholars to assess any actor’s influence in global governance, including in multilateral trade negotiations at the GATT/WTO (Steinberg 2002; Sell and Prakash 2004; Odell 2009; Jones, Deere-Birkbeck, and Woods 2010; Strange 2013). Influence on discourse occurs when an intervening IO introduces new, or alters existing, understandings of a policy issue at the target IO. In the analysis that follows, I show that UN organizations have had an impact on discourse at the GATT/WTO by introducing new framings of trade issues that have changed the terms of debate in trade negotiations. Agenda setting is a process that defines the scope of issues under consideration, thereby delimiting the range of possible future outcomes. At the GATT/WTO, agenda setting is a pivotal stage of bargaining among states in multilateral trade negotiations. As I will show, interventions by UN organizations have influenced the agenda at the GATT/WTO by inserting, blocking, or removing issues from the negotiations. Influence on outcomes is the ability to shape the terms of an official agreement. In multilateral trade negotiations, influence over negotiating outcomes is equated with an actor exerting a substantial effect on the terms of the final deal. As the analysis will demonstrate, UN actors have exercised influence over the substantive content of global trade rules and commitments taken by states.

The case studies analyzed in this book show that interventions by UN organizations have had a meaningful impact on the discourse, agenda, and outcomes of multilateral trade negotiations at the GATT/WTO. The FAO was instrumental in putting food security concerns on the agenda of the agriculture negotiations and in securing a designated WTO agreement designed to protect food-insecure developing countries from higher food prices. Actions by the WFP blocked agreement on proposed WTO trade rules that would have drastically reduced the supply of international food aid to feed the world’s hungriest people. The OHCHR’s efforts were instrumental in bringing human rights concerns into the WTO agriculture negotiations and led to the incorporation of new food security safeguards for vulnerable groups. The SRRTF intervened to propose a legal waiver to end uncertainty about the legality of public food stockholding for food security; this was taken up by states and became part of new global trade rules. Taken collectively, these cases show that, through their interventions, UN actors introduced food security concerns into multilateral trade negotiations.

The analysis presented in this book demonstrates that intervention is not limited to a specific type of IO but is undertaken by a diverse range of IOs. While all the IOs examined in this study are part of the UN system, the FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and SRRTF differ from each other in important ways, including in their mandates, functions, membership, and resources. These UN agencies also come from different areas of global governance—agriculture and food policy (FAO), humanitarian assistance (WFP), and human rights (OHCHR, SRRTF). Another important difference is that these IOs intervened with respect to different food security–related issues at the GATT/WTO, including higher food prices (FAO), international food aid (WFP), protections for food-insecure groups (OHCHR), and public food stockholding (SRRTF). In addition, these IOs intervened at different times and during distinct junctures in multilateral trade negotiations on agriculture, including the GATT Uruguay Round (1986–94), the WTO Doha Round (2001–11), and the post-Doha period.3 Interventions by the FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and SRRTF in the trade regime have thus targeted different trade issues and have occurred at different points in time over a more than thirty-year period. Their actions were taken independently from one another and were unrelated, indicating that their interventions were not part of some larger coordinated “grand strategy” among various UN organizations directed at the WTO.

In their interventions seeking to alter the trajectory and results of multilateral trade negotiations, I argue that UN actors are effectively acting as “shadow negotiators” in the trade regime. First, authority to decide global trade rules rests solely with states. UN actors are not formal participants in the negotiation of international trade agreements, and they lack a seat at the bargaining table. They thus operate in the shadow of states: altering the trajectory of decision-making at the GATT/WTO requires altering the behavior of states. Since states are the decision makers at the GATT/WTO, UN actors must work with or through states in order to shape global trade rules. Second, UN actors have operated “in the shadows” in the sense that while most attention has focused on bargaining among states in multilateral trade negotiations, the role of UN actors in GATT/WTO negotiations has gone largely unnoticed by scholars. Third, although UN actors have no official negotiating role at the GATT/WTO, as the following cases will show, they sometimes behave very much like negotiators—including drafting bargaining proposals and putting forward specific measures to be incorporated into trade agreements, steering the negotiating agenda, devising negotiating strategy, blocking proposals that they object to, and mobilizing coalitions of like-minded states to support and advance initiatives. While not formal or official negotiators, UN actors may nonetheless at times assume the role of shadow negotiators in GATT/WTO negotiations.

Research Design and Methods

The purpose of this book is to demonstrate the existence of intervention as a form of political behavior by IOs in regime complexes. To do so, I draw on analysis of multiple, in-depth illustrative cases of intervention: intervention by the FAO during the GATT Uruguay Round (which established the WTO and its rules) and the WTO Doha Round, by the WFP and OHCHR in the WTO Doha Round, and by the SRRTF during the Doha Round and post-Doha Round negotiations. Multiple cases of intervention provide a significantly higher threshold of evidence than a single case and demonstrate that this phenomenon is not merely a one-off occurrence or an aberration but happens with enough frequency to warrant greater attention. These four cases are not meant to be exhaustive of all instances of intervention by IOs at the GATT/WTO but were selected to highlight four distinct intervention strategies: mobilizing states by the FAO, public shaming by the WFP, invoking alternative legal frameworks by the OHCHR, and taking sides by the SRRTF. Moreover, the fact that these IOs intervened at the GATT/WTO is all the more surprising given that—unlike UNCTAD, for example—they are not trade institutions and have no trade mandate.

The analysis presented in this book draws on in-depth field research conducted at the WTO, FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and UN Human Rights Council (HRC; this is the institutional home of the SRRTF) in Geneva and Rome between 2008 and 2019. I collected, analyzed, and triangulated between multiple sources of evidence to carefully trace and reconstruct events; understand the context, motivations, and processes by which UN actors intervened; and assess their influence on global trade rulemaking. Data analyzed in this study included over three hundred official documents—such as reports, speeches, formal decisions, minutes of meetings, summaries of bargaining sessions, and internal memoranda—produced by the secretariats and member states of the GATT/WTO, FAO, WFP, OHCHR, and SRRTF/HRC. Additional archival research was undertaken at the FAO headquarters for the analysis of the FAO’s interventions during the GATT Uruguay Round (1986–94).

The documentary and archival analysis was supplemented with eighty-five in-depth elite interviews. Selected through purposive sampling, interview respondents included current and former executive heads and senior international civil servants of the FAO, WFP, OHCHR, SRRTF/HRC, and GATT/WTO who directly participated in, or were knowledgeable about, the events analyzed in the study. Additional interviews were conducted with current and former member-state representatives at these IOs, including ambassadors, heads of mission, chairpersons of negotiation committees, and other delegates, as well as staff of other IOs with observer status at the GATT/WTO, such as the World Bank, UNCTAD, OECD, and International Labor Organization. Interviews were also conducted with representatives from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on the WTO agricultural trade negotiations, including Oxfam International, the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Interviews were semistructured, with questions tailored to the specific knowledge and experience of each respondent. Interviews were one to two hours in length. The vast majority of interviews were conducted in person, either in the interview respondent’s office or at a neutral venue. The remaining interviews were conducted by telephone or video conference (i.e., Skype). To address the potential for respondent bias to skew the data, I triangulated and cross-checked between multiple interview respondents and other information sources to verify statements and ensure an accurate account of events. Representative quotations drawn from the interview data are presented in the analysis to provide evidence of, and context to situate, interventions by UN actors. Additional data were obtained from direct observation of several public and closed official meetings at the WTO, FAO, HRC, UNCTAD, and Committee for World Food Security, as well as specialized events and workshops organized by IOs, NGOs, and think tanks on the WTO negotiations on agriculture.

Plan of the Book

The concept of intervention is further theorized in chapter 1, where I specify the conditions for intervention by IOs, explain the four intervention strategies, and define how the impacts of intervention can be evaluated. The chapter sets out the book’s contributions to contemporary scholarship on the agency of IOs in global governance and the political dynamics of regime complexes. Chapter 2 traces the evolution of global food security governance from an international regime to a regime complex. The chapter provides context for understanding how institutional proliferation and diverging goals among the institutions active in the global governance of food security have given rise to intervention by UN actors at the GATT/WTO.

Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 are the main empirical chapters of the book. Each chapter analyzes the intervention strategies pursued by UN actors and assesses their influence on the discourse, agenda, and outcomes of multilateral trade negotiations at the GATT/WTO. Chapter 3 examines intervention by the FAO in two multilateral trade negotiations: the GATT Uruguay Round and the WTO Doha Round. I show that FAO officials sought to insert themselves into the politics of the agriculture negotiations in both rounds and did so by mobilizing GATT/WTO member states. In the Uruguay Round, the FAO director-general and senior officials chose to intervene out of concern that proposed global trade rules would make food less affordable and less accessible for the world’s poorest people. To avoid backlash from powerful states dissatisfied with the FAO’s attempts to play an active role in the GATT agriculture negotiations, FAO officials took to working quietly behind the scenes by organizing and steering a bargaining coalition of GATT member states. The FAO worked with and through this bargaining coalition to reframe food security as a trade issue and put food security onto the agenda of the agriculture negotiations. The FAO exerted influence over the outcome of the Uruguay Round as the chief architect of the AoA’s Decision on Measures Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on Least-Developed and Net Food-Importing Developing Countries, a WTO agreement under which states committed to safeguard food security in the event that agricultural trade liberalization led to higher food prices. In addition, the FAO later mobilized WTO member states during the Doha Round negotiations to drive forward the agenda on establishing a WTO-based food financing facility intended to address the difficulties of food import–dependent countries in financing adequate levels of commercial food imports.

Chapter 4 showcases the WFP’s public shaming of WTO members in order to block proposed trade rules intended to discipline international food aid transactions. International food aid has been a source of perennial conflict in the trade regime because of its potential to be used as a form of agricultural export subsidy. Political conflict over international food aid reached fever pitch during the WTO Doha Round, when states sought to establish new rules that would ban certain types of food aid. WFP officials were alarmed by the proposed WTO rules, which they predicted would cause a precipitous decline in the supply of international food aid and would thereby increase the number of hunger-related deaths. However, WFP officials were unable to persuade trade negotiators to change the proposed rules through face-to-face dialogue. As a result, the WFP took the dramatic step of publicly shaming WTO members by launching a media campaign that depicted trade negotiators as recklessly endangering the lives of starving people. The WFP’s self-initiated political actions were controversial and elicited significant backlash from states. Yet its intervention at the WTO proved successful in pressuring trade negotiators to change course and drop the proposed food aid ban. Moreover, when WTO members finally reached a new agreement on agricultural export subsidies in the 2015 Ministerial Decision on Export Competition, which included new global trade rules on international food aid, this agreement incorporated the demands made by the WFP to WTO members.

Chapter 5 examines how the OHCHR invoked international human rights law in an effort to alter global trade rulemaking in the WTO Doha Round. OHCHR officials were concerned that WTO rules were inadequate to protect the human rights of vulnerable populations from the potential adverse effects of agricultural trade liberalization. Although WTO members signaled their preference to keep discussions of human rights out of the agriculture negotiations, the OHCHR, led by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, sought to steer global trade rules toward greater alignment with international human rights standards. In doing so, the OHCHR took extraordinary and unconventional political action, including making unsolicited proposals directly to trade ministers and creating uncertainty about the consistency of WTO rules with international human rights law. Intervention by the OHCHR contributed to new safeguards to protect food security in the draft Doha agriculture agreement that justified exemptions from tariff reductions for crops produced by poor farmers and other marginalized groups.

The final case, presented in chapter 6, examines intervention by the SRRTF in the context of the Doha and post–Doha Round agriculture negotiations. The SRRTF took sides in the negotiations by endorsing the bargaining position of WTO members demanding greater flexibility in global trade rules to pursue domestic food security goals. The SRRTF chose to intervene in the WTO agriculture negotiations out of a conviction that major reform of global trade rules was necessary in order to combat rising food insecurity. Despite starting as an outsider to the world of global trade rulemaking, the SRRTF became an influential player at the WTO by leveraging moral authority as a UN voice for food-insecure people. While the SRRTF’s interventions prompted political backlash by many powerful states, they were nevertheless influential in shaping the agenda and outcomes of the agriculture negotiations. Most notably, the SRRTF’s advocacy for a legal waiver to protect developing countries’ public food-stockholding programs from legal challenge—even when such programs violated existing WTO rules—provided the blueprint for a new WTO agreement, the Ministerial Decision on Public Stockholding for Security Purposes, agreed upon by WTO members at the 2013 Bali Ministerial Conference. Chapters 5 and 6 also show how human rights have become increasingly central to contests over trade and food security, by bringing attention to how trade affects the most vulnerable groups in society and as an instrument to challenge the harmful effects of global trade rules on food-insecure populations.

The last chapter presents the conclusion of this study. It summarizes the findings of the empirical chapters and assesses the influence of UN actors on global trade rulemaking at the GATT/WTO. The case studies provide the basis for developing more generalizable insights about this previously unknown type of political behavior by IOs in the context of complex global governance. The situation that UN organizations find themselves in, where they have a direct stake in, and seek to affect change of, decisions taken by states at another international institution, is not, I argue, unique to the regime complex for food security but is reflective of wider transformations occurring in the institutional structures of global governance.

This book offers compelling evidence to show that IOs have chosen to intervene at other organizations in a regime complex when they expect that a prospective decision will undermine their goals or those of the international community they have been charged to uphold. In the four case studies, UN actors intervened to alter the trajectory and results of decision-making at the GATT/WTO in an effort to steer global trade rulemaking toward outcomes that protect world food security. Intervention may therefore serve to address “trade-and” conflicts by introducing other important international objectives, such as food security and human rights, into the trade regime. This book contributes to our understanding of who makes the rules governing global trade by revealing the previously unrecognized role of UN organizations in the politics of the WTO. To the extent that intervention is successful it may help to reduce incoherence between overlapping institutions in global governance. The book expands our understanding of IOs as actors in global politics by showing how they are exercising influence over decision-making beyond the boundaries of their own institutions and at other overlapping institutions over which they have no formal control.


1. For example, Egypt, Jamaica, and many other food import–dependent developing countries threatened to exit and/or block the agriculture negotiations during the Uruguay Round (Margulis 2017). Similarly, the Indian government threatened to block the WTO agreement on trade facilitation in 2014 because of concerns about the lack of progress on negotiating new rules on public food stockholding and the implications for national food security.

2. This study focuses explicitly on IOs that are external to the multilateral trade system, which excludes the GATT/WTO secretariats. Several studies, such as Elsig (2011), Jinnah (2014), and Xu and Weller (2018), that examine the role of the GATT/WTO secretariats show that they tend to exercise influence primarily in the agreement implementation phase, rather than in the negotiation of trade agreements.

3. WTO trade ministers declared the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations to have reached an impasse in December 2011.