Cooking up a compromise in the Doha round not yet a lost cause

Critics have called the Doha round of trade talks dead. But if Doha is dead, one has to ask why the negotiators are still negotiating.

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Some critics rushed in to declare that the "Doha round" of trade talks was dead - and that they had already said so years ago. Presumably, our attempt at resurrecting it was pathetic and hopeless. But if Doha was dead, one had to ask why the negotiators were still negotiating, and why nearly all the Group of 20 leading and emerging economies were still issuing endorsements of the talks each time they met.

In the words of former US trade representative Susan Schwab, writing on the website, the Doha talks were "doomed" and ready for burial. However, critics thought that one could pick at the corpse and salvage "Plan B", though what was proposed in its many variants - always some minor fraction of the negotiated package to date - should more accurately be called Plan Z.

It sounded like a great idea: better something than nothing. But in multi-faceted talks that straddle several different sectors (for example, agriculture, manufactures and services) and diverse rules (such as anti-dumping and subsidies), countries have negotiated concessions with one another in various areas. Whatever balance of concessions has been achieved would unravel if we were to try to keep one set and let go of another.

As Stuart Harbinson, a former special adviser to Pascal Lamy, the director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), has pointed out, the haggling over what should go into Plan B would be as animated and difficult as the haggling over how to complete the entire Doha package.

Some of the critics are factually ill-informed. The Bhagwati-Sutherland Report amply documents that much has already been agreed upon in all the major areas. As Mr Lamy has put it, nearly 80 per cent of the curry is ready; we need only additional spices from the major players - India, the EU, the US, Brazil and China. These can be provided in politically palatable ways, which also means that the conclusion of Doha is within our reach, not beyond our grasp.

But why bother to continue trying? If Doha fails, some say, life will go on. That is true, of course, but that doesn't make this view any less naive.

If the Doha round fails, trade liberalisation would shift from the WTO to preferential trade agreements (PTAs), which are already spreading like an epidemic. But if PTAs were the only game in town, the implicit constraint on trade barriers against third countries provided by the WTO's Article 24, which is weak but real, would disappear altogether. The WTO stands on two legs: non-discriminatory trade liberalisation and uniform rule-making and enforcement. With the former eliminated, the most important institution of global free trade would be crippled.

This would also affect the leg that survived, because the PTAs would also increasingly take over the functions of rule-making. This already can be seen in PTAs, whose rules on conventional issues such as anti-dumping are often discriminatory in favour of members.

It is also reflected in the increasing number of non-trade-related provisions being inserted into the PTA treaties proposed by the US and EU. These are a result of self-serving lobbies that seek concessions by weaker trading partners, without which free trade supposedly would amount to "unfair trade". These rules are then advertised as "avant garde", implying that the PTAs are the "vanguard" of new rules.

As a result, the willingness of WTO members to invoke the dispute settlement mechanism, the pride of the WTO - and, indeed, of international governance - would also be sapped. Tribunals established within PTAs would take over the business, leading to the atrophy, and eventual irrelevance, of the DSM.

We can live without the Doha round, but for many people it would not be much of a life. Now is no time for cynical complacency.

Jagdish Bhagwati is university professor of economics and law at Columbia University and senior fellow in international economics at the US Council on Foreign Relations. He is currently co-chairman of the UNCTAD panel of eminent persons on "development-centred globalisation"

* Project Syndicate