More ink has been spilled over the lingering death of the Kyoto Protocol, but the other great international negotiating effort, involving far more people and with a much bigger group of supporting bureaucracies all over the world, is also withering on the vine.That is the Doha Round of trade talks seeking to advance global trade liberalization under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. Dating back to the Kennedy administration, world trade negotiations have been divided into “rounds” aimed at achieving broad, multi-sectoral trade agreements involving all the members of the lead international trade organization of the day.The theory has been that while negotiating tariff reductions and market access agreements on many subjects and among many countries might be more complicated and time consuming than more narrowly focused negotiations, the broad format makes the chance of a final agreement greater. Countries who don’t like one part of the agreement can be compensated on another topic; you may hate what the agreement proposes on textiles, for example, but like its guarantees about intellectual property enough to make you swallow the textile agreement.The Doha Round is dying for some of the same reasons the green negotiations are going nowhere: the agreements cover so many countries and so many subjects that the process is breaking down under the weight of complexity and competing interests. There are too many parties negotiating too many topics that touch too deeply on too many domestic interests for agreement to be easy to find.Doha also suffers from maladies specific to the trade world. Countries like India and Brazil are fighting harder for their own interests; rich countries like the US must deal with domestic constituencies who oppose various elements of the trade agenda; widening the scope of trade negotiations to include sensitive sectors like agriculture makes agreement that much harder to get.Worse, the low hanging fruit have been picked. The easy win-win agreements were reached in earlier trade rounds; the topics left are mostly contentious and the gains in some cases are less dramatic than in the past.WTO negotiating sessions used to be major international events; today you have to scan the news pretty closely to find out what is going on (or, more accurately, not going on). This seems to be the trajectory down which the climate negotiations are also proceeding; the bureaucracies and the negotiating processes don’t stop moving forward (too many jobs and careers are at stake, too many institutions have a stake in the process for it to stop), but people — including top policymakers who have limited time for international events in any case — gradually stop paying attention as the prospect of meaningful agreements grows ever more remote. Bureaucrats don’t like to bury their dead; the world of diplomacy is full of zombie negotiations and institutions — dead but still mindlessly on the move.Taken together with the chaos and dysfunction in the European Union, the less dramatic but equally deep breakdown of the Doha Round also points to the limits of transnational governance. Nation states have their problems and limits, but international institutions are even more severely limited. Whether it is the UN, the WTO, the IMF, NATO or even the EU, international institutions are cumbersome and weak. We can’t live without them, but we can’t count on them to do much.The idea of global free trade is a good one, and the WTO as far as it goes does some very good and very important work. (The WTO doesn’t just organize new trade agreements; it enforces old ones, and that enforcement work will continue regardless of what happens to the Doha Round.) But global free trade is more of an aspiration than something we can achieve anytime soon. We will have to be flexible to make progress where we can, while thinking about ways to make the WTO negotiating process less unwieldy.Greens have historically hated the WTO, seeing it as an organization that prioritizes growth over sustainability and that limits the ability of countries to restrict imports of everything from Canadian oil sands petroleum to genetically modified food. But greens have much to learn from the Doha Round. If the nations of the world can’t agree on a complex, universal trade package aimed at accelerating growth and raising incomes, how likely are they to agree on an even more complex and difficult agreement that will slow growth down and distribute losses rather than allocate gains?
Doha: Dead As The Dodo
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