Governments from around the world pledged to great fanfare in Doha that they would make free trade work for even the poorest countries. Five years later, it’s just another quiet day at the World Trade Organization.
The lofty rhetoric of 2001 quietly dropped, negotiators have failed to follow through on their promises of widespread reform of international trade in farm goods, manufactured products and services.
Even worse, they’ve stopped negotiating altogether: the current trade round, once billed as a recipe for lifting millions of people out of poverty, has been suspended since an acrimonious collapse four months ago as differences over farm subsidies and tariffs proved unbridgeable.
“These trade talks were about fostering equitable economic growth in all countries,” said Celine Charveriat of the aid agency Oxfam International, which campaigns on behalf of the trade interests of poorer nations. “What was on the table when the talks were suspended was far from acceptable.”
The Doha round of free trade talks was launched in Qatar’s capital on Nov. 14, 2001, just over two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and during a wave of international cooperation that included the start of the US-led war on terror.
The plan was to lower tariffs on a wide range of goods and services, while focusing specifically on needs of poorer countries, who have long clamored for an end to the export subsidies and highly restrictive tariffs that were preventing them from selling their farm goods abroad.
But two summits, one in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003 and another in Hong Kong last year, failed to deliver on what former US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick promised five years ago would be a powerful signal of “growth, development and prosperity throughout the world.”
WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy, a former European Union trade chief, called a halt to the talks in July after the WTO’s most powerful members had refused for months to budge from entrenched positions on farm support and manufacturing tariffs. Only a week earlier presidents and prime ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries had called a new trade deal a top priority.
Other countries heavily criticized the United States for refusing to significantly cut farm subsidies, while the US blamed emerging trade powers such as Brazil and India for being inflexible on cutting barriers to industrial imports and the EU for refusing to make deeper reductions in tariffs on agricultural imports.
“We now have a vacuum in being able to sell the case for trade,” said Jagdish Bhagwati, an economics professor at Columbia University in New York. “I don’t see anybody like (former Vice President Al) Gore who is putting the case forward. I haven’t seen it in this country.”
Since then, there have not been any negotiations on the round at the Geneva-based body and diplomats have devoted more time to their countries’ commercial disputes. Informal meetings at separate events in Australia and Brazil failed to produce new offers, or even a date for new negotiations.
Another attempt to revive talks will come when President Bush and Pacific Rim leaders meet in Hanoi for the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and are expected to rescue the Doha round.
Le Cong Phung, Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister, said that the 21 APEC economies would appeal for compromise in urging an end to the deadlock and a resumption of negotiations.
The EU’s top trade official, Peter Mandelson, said there is “a short window in the weeks and months ahead to close a deal.”
“If we do not, we risk losing the opportunity for some time to come, possibly years,” Mandelson said. “The key challenges we face in these negotiations are political, but the machinery needs to be ready if there is a serious resumption of negotiations.”
Trade officials have talked of busy behind-the-scenes work of late aimed at restarting the Doha round, a “silent diplomacy” that was the only option while the United States was in the midst of a highly p