Frankfurt — The Americans accused the Chinese of being modern-day mercantilists who steal intellectual property. The Europeans accused the Americans of provoking a crisis in the world trading system, threatening the global economy.
And the Chinese invoked Spider-Man. Unlike Spidey, the Chinese emissary said, America is not using its superpowers with great responsibility.
The trash-talking by otherwise restrained diplomats took place at a normally dull occasion: a review of American trade policies at the World Trade Organization in Geneva.
The reviews, held every two years, usually attract only lower-ranking diplomats. They are intended to allow W.T.O. members to explain their trade policies and for other members to comment and ask questions. But in an age of severe trade tensions, countries sent full-fledged ambassadors and the sessions, which were held on Monday and Wednesday, became a venue for allies and adversaries alike to vent their anger at American policies they said were illegal and destructive.
The debate provided another example of the way the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to international diplomacy has altered the rules of engagement at international institutions like the W.T.O. The niceties of protocol are eroding and the language has become more blunt.
“The multilateral trading system is in a deep crisis and the United States is at its epicenter,” Marc Vanheukelen, the European Union’s ambassador to the W.T.O., said Monday, the first of two days of debate about United States policies. He was one of more than 60 diplomats who expressed views, often critical.
The United States, by contrast, tried to turn the discussions into a platform to attack China and what the American emissary, Dennis Shea, said was exploitation of W.T.O. rules in a quest for economic hegemony.
“China will force technology transfer, and outright steal it when it sees fit,” Mr. Shea, the deputy United States trade representative, said at Wednesday’s session. “China will subsidize and maintain excess capacity in multiple industries, forcing producers in other economies to shut down. China will dump its products on our markets, claiming that all is O.K. because our consumers pay a bit less.”
The European Union and other allies generally agree with the White House’s criticisms of China. But they disagree with the President Trump’s strong-arm tactics, such as tariffs to pressure China. They have expressed fear that the Trump administration is fomenting a new Cold War with China that will force them to take sides. Many countries in Europe, Asia and Africa depend on trade with both the United States and China.
The tensions between the two countries show no signs of easing. Top advisers to Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, briefed Congress on Tuesday afternoon about the state of the trade talks with China and left staff with the sense that the negotiations were in disarray.
Congressional aides said after the briefing that they were not optimistic about the prospects of reaching a significant deal by March 2, the new date for proposed increases in United States tariffs on China. One aide said that the trade officials, Stephen P. Vaughn, the general counsel of the trade representative’s office, and Jeffrey D. Gerrish, Mr. Lighthizer’s deputy, suggested that the tariffs that the United States had imposed on China would not be rolled back even if an agreement was struck by the deadline. The officials were also unsure about how they would even enforce the concessions that they were pressing China to make.
“The Trump-induced whiplash on China has left more questions than answers,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee. “One day, he’s ‘Tariff Man,’ and the next, it’s ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’ Congress must get answers from this administration on what success looks like.”
In a plenary hall at W.T.O. headquarters on the shores of Lake Geneva this week, the global stresses were on view. The talks were closed to the public, but the United States and other countries made texts of their speeches available.
Under Mr. Shea, who also serves as the American permanent representative to the W.T.O., the United States has expressed its views in unvarnished language that has shocked other diplomats at times but is very much in line with Mr. Trump’s view that America is getting a raw deal on global markets.
“For too long, the rules of global trade have been tilted against U.S. workers and businesses,” the United States government said in a report it submitted as part of the trade policy review.
Critics accuse the United States of trying to undermine rules of trade it largely wrote, creating a free-for-all that would undercut global growth.
American leadership in matters of trade “has driven much of the phenomenal growth of prosperity across the world over the last decades,” said Mr. Vanheukelen, the European Union ambassador. “In deciding to use tariffs as a central plank of its new trade policy, and in suggesting that trade wars can have winners, the U.S. is putting these achievements at risk.”
The United States view is that the W.T.O. has lost its way, though it is unclear what changes the administration wants. “We must recognize that the W.T.O. that we helped create, and the W.T.O. we seek, is in key respects not the W.T.O. we have today,” Mr. Shea said.
If nothing else, the Trump administration has focused media attention on an organization that has long been crucial to the functioning of world trade but rarely generated headlines.
But numerous speakers in Geneva argued that Mr. Trump’s trade policies threaten to undermine global trade and isolate the United States.
“The U.S. is today not the most popular member in Geneva,” J.S. Deepak, the Indian ambassador to the W.T.O., said Wednesday.
The United States was once the leading advocate of a trading system that operates according to rules, Mr. Deepak said. Now, he said, its behavior “could sound the death knell of the W.T.O. as we know it today.”
China is already trying to exploit the United States’ isolation on trade issues, portraying itself as the voice of reason.
Zhang Xiangchen, the Chinese ambassador to the W.T.O., noted during his speech Monday the recent death of Stan Lee, a central player in the creation of Spider-Man and many other Marvel characters. “This is a great loss for all fans of comic movies around the world,” Mr. Zhang said, sounding not at all like the stereotype of a Communist Party functionary.
Mr. Zhang then turned his homage to Mr. Lee into an attack on the United States.
“What impressed me most is not Spider-Man’s superhuman abilities,” Mr. Zhang said, “but rather this line from the movie: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’”
In the last year, Mr. Zhang said, the world is witnessing “a different America with severe mismatched power and responsibility.”