The GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) founded in 1947 as a forum for negotiating lower customs duty rates and other trade barriers was one of the three international economic institutions set up by the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. Originally there was to have been an International Trade Organization, but the US Senate would not ratify it, and only its set of rules, the GATT, came into force, at least until 1995 when the WTO was, finally, formed.
The WTO has therefore existed as such only from 1995, but it had evolved by degrees out of the GATT. The text of the General Agreement spelled out important rules, particularly non-discrimination, and the major trading nations which signed up to the GATT contracted to obey those rules. The GATT, updated in 1995 when the WTO was founded, has become the WTO’s umbrella agreement for trade in goods. It has annexes dealing with specific sectors such as agriculture and textiles, and with specific issues such as state trading, product standards, subsidies and actions taken against dumping.
Since GATT’s creation in 1947-48 there have been eight rounds of trade negotiations. A ninth round, under the Doha Development Agenda, is now underway and partially completed. At first these focused on lowering tariffs (customs duties) on imported goods. As a result of the negotiations, by the mid-1990s industrial countries’ tariff rates on industrial goods had fallen steadily to less than 4% on average. By the 1980s, the negotiations had expanded to cover non-tariff barriers on goods, and to new areas such as services and intellectual property.