Resolving or Exacerbating Disputes: The Wto's New Dispute System

Posted: 11 Dec 2004

See all articles by Karen J. Alter

Karen J. Alter

Northwestern University - Department of Political Science; University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law - iCourts Center of Excellence


In 1995 the dispute resolution system of the WTO was transformed to make it more effective in enforcing WTO rules. Ironically, the improvements in the dispute resolution system have contributed directly to greater conflict in the WTO. How can improving a system to resolve disputes actually exacerbate conflict? Alter identifies a number of conflict enhancing consequences of the change in the dispute resolution mechanism. Conflict is not per se bad. Indeed if the outcome of this conflict is that governments must better justify participation in the WTO, then conflict is good. But there is a danger that international courts are more likely than most courts to generate conflict, while the international legal and political system is less adept at weathering controversy and addressing valid public concerns. Left unaddressed, conflicts generated by international legal bodies can erode support for the international legal system and multilateral strategies in general. Alter puts forth solutions designed to build into internationally legalised processes political safety valves, greater political sensitivity, and improved accountability, as well as legitimacy enhancing devices. Demonstrated here in the case of the WTO, Alter's analysis applies to international legal systems generally.

Keywords: International Law, International Courts, International Dispute Resolution, WTO

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Alter, Karen J., Resolving or Exacerbating Disputes: The Wto's New Dispute System. International Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 4, July 2003. Available at SSRN:

Karen J. Alter (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Department of Political Science ( email )

601 University Place
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law - iCourts Center of Excellence ( email )

Karen Blixens Plads 16
Copenhagen, DK-2300

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