A principal reason for popular concern about the World Trade Organisation is that national rules—especially those for environmental and public health pro-tection—may be overturned because they are incompatible with the WTO's rules. This article argues that while these concerns are not totally unfounded, they are exaggerated. A central reason for this exaggeration is that environmental and consumer advocates discount the pivotal role of governments in the dispute resolution process. Governments agree to the multilateral rules in the first place. Governments decide which market access barriers to pursue and how aggressively. Governments determine how to comply with a WTO judgment that goes against them. Furthermore, this article contends that by exaggerating the constraint imposed upon national governments by the WTO, consumer and environmental advocates run the risk of actually discouraging the very environmental and public health regulations they favor.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, 11 May 2004. I would like to thank the participants, Anthony Lott and three anonymous referees for their comments. The research on which this paper is based was made possible by a grant from the British Academy (SG-35702). I am also grateful to the practitioners who took the time to discuss these issues with me.