Culture Clash: The Sociology of WTO Precedent

Previously published on SSRN.


Thanks to the United States, the WTO Appellate Body can no longer hear appeals. Having blocked all appointments to the body, the United States has left its bench empty, with no members to fulfill its role. Among the United States’ justifications: The Appellate Body’s adoption of an apparent doctrine of precedent.

This chapter takes a deeper look at the fight over precedent at the WTO, both as a case study in the emergence and operation of precedent within international law and as a microcosm of the cultural conflicts playing out within the WTO. The chapter develops an account of precedent as a product of three overlapping, inter-dependent, and mutually constructed logics: (1) the jurisprudential, (2) the rational, and (3) the sociological. It then uses these three logics to retell the story of precedent at the WTO – the emerging patterns of argumentative practice, the Appellate Body’s adoption of a doctrinal test, and the escalating U.S. opposition to the “cogent reasons” standard that body applied. Seeing the fight over precedent as a function of all three logics reveals the real cultural fights for control of the WTO community of practice. Seeing that community of practice coalesce around and split over unwritten practices of precedent reveals how international law develops as much as a function of culture, training, and practice as of rules and power.