In the international arena, dramatic events often expose the law's underlying conceptual and doctrinal fault lines. The September 11 attacks (and responses), the Pinochet litigation, and the International Court of Justice's opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons amply demonstrate how extraordinary events can highlight the limits of traditional international law doctrines and principles.
Surprisingly, apparently garden-variety disputes can also reveal much about the underlying tensions in the international legal system. The Varietals dispute, which apparently involves nothing other than a straightforward application of the SPS Agreement, is such a case. The panel and Appellate Body reports in this dispute reveal much about the function of WTO dispute resolution and the purposes of international trade law. More importantly, like other “great” WTO cases – such as Beef-Hormone and Shrimp-Turtle – the Varietals dispute directs our attention to the shifting relationship between the expanding reach of international regulation and state's regulatory autonomy, and hence to some of the most important questions regarding both globalization and the status and scope of contemporary international law.
While a full defense of these claims is beyond the scope of this chapter, I will highlight several features of this understudied but remarkably rich case to outline an argument about what the Varietals dispute teaches us about both the current state – and our understanding – of international trade law. To do so, this chapter will proceed in six parts. Part I introduces the factual background to the Varietals dispute.