With a Hostile Regime in Washington, WTO in eclipse

Sixteen years after World Trade Organization negotiators set out to reform agricultural and other tariff barriers in 2001 in Doha. Qatar, they are still at it, and they appear hardly any closer to success. WTO negotiators met on Sept. 13 and 15 to attempt to set goals for the trade body’s 11th ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, set for mid-December.

In an understatement, the WTO put out a news release saying that “While most members signaled strong interest in achieving substantive outcomes in agriculture for the Buenos Aires meeting in several issues, gaps persist on what could be potential deliverables.”

In a word, those gaps boil down to the fact that poor countries, which produce cheap food, want to export it to rich countries, and the rich countries want to protect their farmers.

Even if the issues weren’t as thorny as they obviously are in a growing era of hostility to globalization, the United States, which has been the most important player in arguing for cuts in tariffs and other impediments to a more open global trade regime, can no longer be counted upon. US President Donald Trump has famously displayed a deep distrust of the entire global trade regime. He has created a new White House office on trade policy, to be headed by Peter Navarro, a University of California, Irvine economist and an outspoken critic of US trade policy. The announcement of Navarro’s appointment simply never mentioned the US Trade Representative.

That is an indication that the World Trade Organization is likely to get short shrift from the Trump administration. The administration’s US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, almost immediately after his appointment made it clear his target is to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The White House has also trained its guns on the US-South Korea free trade agreement and other trade regimes that have come under fire from the President. His first act as president was to void US participation in the TransPacific Partnership, the TPP, which was the most comprehensive pact ever negotiated after the WTO itself.

Thus it is likely that the US Trade Representative, which traditionally has led the administration’s trade policy, will end up simply being ignored.

Against that backdrop, WTO negotiators have stumbled over seven issues, comprising stockpiling food stocks for food security; domestic price supports; cotton exports; special safeguard mechanisms for developing countries; export prohibitions or restrictions; and “other topics.” In other words, arriving at free trade in agriculture is a long way down the road.

The world had high hopes in 2001 when the Doha Development Round got underway under the auspices of then-WTO Director-General Mike Moore. After all, prior to the Doha round, the world had made steady progress toward reducing trade restrictions and tariffs. China had been readied to be brought into the WTO and indeed joined the trade body in December of that year.

But since that time, ministerial meetings have taken place in Cancun, Mexico, Nairobi, Kenya and Hong Kong, among other locations with related negotiations in Paris, Potsdam and Geneva. The downward spiral ended in July of 2008 in Switzerland when disagreements caused a complete breakdown in negotiations.

An attempt to revive the talks in the US in 1999 resulted in what has been called the Battle of Seattle, in which negotiations at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center were overshadowed by massive street protest by an estimated 40,000 protesters that turned into a protest against globalization itself.

There have been repeated attempts to revive the talks, so far without success despite intensive negotiations. Although officially the future of the Doha round remains uncertain, negotiations have continued on a piecemeal basis.

“Now, 12 calendar weeks until the Ministerial in Buenos Aires, it is imperative that progress be made,” said Kenyan Ambassador Stephen Karau during the mid-September meetings. But given the magnitude of the issues faced by the global agricultural community, it is difficult to believe any additional progress is going to be made. The meetings in Buenos Aires are likely to be another anticlimax to say the least, with Karau’s seven issues remaining unsolved.

Karau ended the meeting by quoting Winston Churchill: “’Some people dream of success, while others wake up and work hard at it.’ We need to work hard and we should all contribute if we want to achieve something at MC11,” he said.