A Moving Target: Agenda Change in Trade Negotiations

Heather Elko McKibben is an assistant professor of political science. Her project, which seeks to better understand the issues that affect international negotiations, was awarded an ISS Individual Research Grant in 2015. She provided this update in January 2016.

What motivated you to pursue this project?

This project is motivated by a desire to better understand international negotiations and how different issues come to be on the agenda in these negotiations. In particular, it seeks to help us understand how and why different states, with different levels of power in the international system, are able to get issues important to their own interests on the agenda in international negotiations. What types of issues will different states try to add (or remove) from the agenda, why are they likely to try to do so, and under what conditions are they likely to be successful?

How has it progressed since you received an ISS Individual Research Grant?

Focusing on trade negotiations, in particular, the ISS grant was used toward a large-scale data collection effort designed to allow for systematic analyses of agenda change. Drawing on original negotiating documents and rigorously-constructed coding rules, I have identified and coded the issues that have been included on, added to, and removed from the agenda in the multilateral trade negotiations that have taken place place under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)/World Trade Organization (WTO) from the post-World War II period to today.

Data was also collected regarding which states pushed for particular issues to be added to the agenda, which states worked to keep particular issues off the agenda, key characteristics of those issues, and when states were successful in adding or removing them. While the data collection process is still in the stages of being finalized, the data collected to date provide rich qualitative evidence on international trade negotiations. They have also been collected in a systematic way, allowing me to create large-N datasets that I can use to identify and test key questions related to the study of agenda change.

What notable or surprising findings can you share at this point?

Using one such large-N dataset, I have already carried out a first analysis related to questions of agenda change and presented it at the Fall 2015 conference of the American Political Science Association. This analysis draws on agenda-change data from the 1980s – an important time period in which the multilateral trade regime was expanded significantly. In this analysis, I focus on the question of what particular types of issues states are likely to try to add to (or remove from) the agenda. 

The results of this early study show that, interestingly, the types of issues that states work to add to the agenda are precisely those issues on which they have the weakest bargaining position relative to their opponents. They do so under very particular conditions, which I argue allow states to capitalize on the potential for trade-offs across issues in order to win on the issues they are adding – issues where they have an otherwise weak position.

Outside of these conditions, however, we do not see many attempts at agenda change. The question to ask is whether this result holds only in this seminal time period, or whether it is a more general trend in the modern history of multilateral trade negotiations. 

What is the next step?

The next steps of this project, which include the completion of the data collection effort, will help to address this question. In future work, I will also conduct analyses to address the other key questions related to the study of agenda change in international negotiations that motivate this project’s overall research agenda.

Learn more about Heather Elko McKibben at her faculty webpage.