The Extensive (but Fragile) Authority of the WTO Appellate Body

Gregory C. Shaffer, UC Irvine School of Law
Manfred Elsig
Sergio Puig


The authority of an international court (IC) is not necessarily evolutionary and its development unidirectional. This article focuses on the authority of the Appellate Body (AB) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and shows how it rapidly and almost immediately became extensive, but has since exhibited signs of becoming increasingly fragile. The article applies a typology of IC authority developed by Alter, Helfer and Madsen (2014) and explains the transformation from narrow authority (a dispute resolution venue under the GATT based on political negotiations) to extensive authority (a sophisticated WTO dispute settlement system) and presents empirical indicators of the rise of the AB’s authority. Such rapid development of extensive field authority is arguably a unique case in international politics at the multilateral level. That authority nonetheless remains fragile, and shows signs that it could decline significantly for reasons we explain.