GENEVA (AP) -- The World Trade Organization will step up monitoring of protectionist trade policies amid rising fears that nations will make the economic crisis worse by retreating from open markets -- as they did during the Great Depression.
At a meeting Monday, WTO chief Pascal Lamy told trade ambassadors there have been few examples of new trade restrictions since financial markets declined steeply late last year.
But, he added, "we are still at only an early stage in the policy response around the world to the economic recession, and I believe that we must remain vigilant."
Business and political leaders have expressed worry over the threat of protectionism -- for example at last month's World Economic Forum -- but much of the fear so far is speculative. Most attention has focused on "Buy American" provisions concerning steel and manufactured goods in the U.S. stimulus package, and whether they would unfairly hurt foreign producers.
The fear of policy-makers and businessmen is that Washington -- and others -- may revert to the strategy employed at the beginning of the Great Depression, when the U.S. Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 raised tariffs on thousands of goods to protect American businesses. The act led to worldwide retaliation and the devastation of international commerce.
World powers after World War II tried to guard against a repeat by setting up the Bretton Woods global financial institutions.
President Barack Obama has promised that the U.S. will respect international trade agreements. Other countries are likely to make similar pledges with their stimulus packages or bailouts for key industries such as automobiles.
But countries can still resort to some forms of protectionism without breaking any rules.
Most nations can legally raise their tariffs somewhat above the level they currently charge on imports. They can also attach extra duties on foreign goods they suspect are being "dumped" at below-market value. In agriculture, countries can even resort to export subsidies, as the European Union recently did for dairy products in a move many of the WTO's 153 members are criticizing but not calling illegal.
Lamy set up the meeting Monday to discuss a report the WTO compiled last month on how trade is being affected by the financial crisis through new tariffs, subsidies in government bailouts and other import barriers. Much of the report was pasted together from news articles, and nations agreed that they should be more forthcoming in notifying the WTO of trade policy changes.
That includes tariff adjustments that remain within legal limits, which nations are not currently required to inform the WTO about. Future meetings -- which will take place monthly -- will also include countries still trying to join the WTO, such as Russia, which has raised its auto tariffs.
Some countries also supported the idea of naming and shaming others deemed to be resorting to protectionist measures. Officials said there was no consensus yet on this issue.