Faculty Focus

Petros C. Mavroidis

International Trade

Professor Petros C. Mavroidis recently completed a casebook that takes a whole new approach to understanding the complex inner workings of the World Trade Organization

By Joy Y. Wang

Winter 2010

A leading expert on the World Trade Organization (WTO), Professor Petros C. Mavroidis has authored or edited nearly two dozen books—but ask him about his most recent publication, and the professor’s eyes light up with pride. Mavroidis holds up a finger, hurries out of the room, and returns with a hefty tome titled The Law of the World Trade Organization. Written with Columbia Law School Professor George A. Bermann and academic fellow Mark Wu, the casebook took five years of work and is informed by 10 years of teaching experience.

That the publication took so many years to compile comes as no surprise, considering the sheer size of the 5-pound book. But the breadth of the casebook was not the only factor that necessitated such a significant investment of time: Mavroidis began the project with the desire to challenge the basic approach of such books.

“I had questions about the approach of most casebooks,” says Mavroidis, the Edwin E. Parker Professor of Foreign and Comparative Law. “[When I first started this book,] I asked myself, ‘What is the function of a casebook? What do we want to achieve?' I think of myself all the time as a student.” The result of the introspection was a casebook that not only answers the “how” of the WTO’s legal regimes and institutions, but also provides the “why” behind their existence.

Mavroidis explains that, unlike typical casebooks that examine topics from a range of angles, chapters in The Law of the World Trade Organization are uniformly structured. Each section details the economic rationales behind an institution or law, as well as how it has been received by essential WTO jurisdictions. Finally, every chapter concludes with a corresponding questions and comments section. The casebook uses this structure to break down complex issues such as the trade organization’s dispute settlement system and the protection of intellectual property rights. For the questions and comments section, Mavroidis drew many of the queries from those his students posed in trade law classes he has taught over the years.

Mavroidis’ interest in the WTO took hold with the realization early in his career that “everything affects trade,” he explains. “Trade is one of the fruits of international relations. It signals that the country is willing to be more, or less, cooperative than it has to be. I believe in the power of economics and of law.” Mavroidis is currently working with five experts on a report for the American Law Institute that will update 60 years of WTO case law. 

A native of northern Greece, Mavroidis was on academic leave for the spring semester, though he often travels to New York City from his home in Switzerland. This allows him to remain well connected to the Columbia Law School community, and he is already planning for the fall semester, when he’ll return to teaching. This September, with the help of Professor Benjamin L. Liebman, Mavroidis will host a 13-week seminar at the Law School on the relationship between China and the WTO. Academics, diplomats, and high-ranking officials will examine China’s role within the trade organization, as well as how participation in it has shaped Chinese domestic policies.

For his part, Mavroidis is hesitant to come to a definite conclusion on how the country has affected the organization, and vice versa. He notes that China only joined the WTO nine years ago, a comparatively short amount of time in the context of the organization’s history. “China has arguably made the effort to adopt Washington consensus-type policies by joining the WTO,” Mavroidis ventures, “and China realized they could use the WTO to bring their national bureaucracies up to date. [Joining the organization] was an important signal of administrative reform.”

Until he returns for the fall semester, Mavroidis will continue to explore the effect trade has on nearly every aspect of international relations. He is currently composing articles about how trade relations might shape the future of the Kyoto Protocol, for instance.   

All the while, Mavroidis manages to travel extensively to and from Switzerland, where the doting father spends time with this wife and three young daughters. Dividing his time between family and career, as well as the U.S. and Europe, seems to come naturally for the boisterous professor, though. Gesturing at his enormous casebook on the WTO, he explains simply and with a smile: “This is my fun time. It’s not 9-to-5 work.”