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I know the WTO mandates that members do not unfairly favour one trading partner over another, the so-called Most-Favoured Nation principle.

Does the WTO have a fine-grained and detailed set of rules for members, or a smaller set of general principles?

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Does the WTO have a fine-grained and detailed set of rules for members, or a smaller set of general principles?

The WTO as an organisation does not make the rules. It's a member-driven organisation. This excerpt from a pdf on their website explains it well:

The WTO is run by its member governments. All major decisions are made by the membership as a whole, either by ministers (who meet at least once every two years) or by their ambassadors or delegates (who meet regularly in Geneva). Decisions are normally taken by consensus.

In this respect, the WTO is different from some other international organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the WTO, power is not delegated to a board of directors or the organization’s head.

When WTO rules impose disciplines on countries’ policies, that is the outcome of negotiations among WTO members. The rules are enforced by the members themselves under agreed procedures that they negotiated, including the possibility of trade sanctions. But those sanctions are imposed by member countries, and authorized by the membership as a whole. This is quite different from other agencies whose bureaucracies can, for example, influence a country’s policy by threatening to withhold credit.

The WTO merely provides a 'platform' for its members to settle disputes and come to agreements.

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  • True. The "platform"s primary advantage over GATT seems to be mechanisms for dispute resolution, but I think the OP was asking about the general agreements. – Burt_Harris Nov 5 '18 at 1:22
  • @Burt_Harris yes, but I think you need to take this into account as well. I'd say this is a partial answer, as it nuances the premise of the question in a way that helps one understand a more specific answer. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Nov 5 '18 at 1:27
  • Sure, its not the kind of question where there can be only one answer. That would be boring. – Burt_Harris Nov 5 '18 at 1:35
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The concept of Most Favoured Nation status is older than WTO, dating back to at least GATT. But under the WTO agreements, it is treated as an obligation of members, with exemptions. For example, in the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services.

Article II: Most-Favoured-Nation Treatment

  1. With respect to any measure covered by this Agreement, each Member shall accord immediately and unconditionally to services and service suppliers of any other Member treatment no less favourable than that it accords to like services and service suppliers of any other country.

  2. A Member may maintain a measure inconsistent with paragraph 1 provided that such a measure is listed in, and meets the conditions of, the Annex on Article II Exemptions.

  3. The provisions of this Agreement shall not be so construed as to prevent any Member from conferring or according advantages to adjacent countries in order to facilitate exchanges limited to contiguous frontier zones of services that are both locally produced and consumed.

The above-mentioned annex for exemptions is where matters get tricky, and beyond my ability to explain. It seems possible that each member country can propose exemptions applicable itself. But that they are subject to review by the Council for Trade in Services. (There are probably different councils for different agreements.)

Given the two choices in the question, (fine-grained and detailed vs a set of general principles) it seems somewhere in the middle, but leaning toward general principals.

Exceptions to WTO Rules:  General Exceptions, Security Exceptions, Regional Trade Agreements (RTAs),  Balance‐of-Payments (BOPs) & Waivers seems to try to explain the guidelines. I'll pass on even reading it.

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