VoxEU Column Global governance International trade

The Doha endgame and the future of the WTO

This column says the WTO should suspend its formal negotiations for the next twelve months and attempt to head off a wave of protection in the interim. This would enhance the chances for the ultimate success of the Doha Round.

On December 12, the WTO’s Doha negotiations collapsed. More accurately, trade negotiators from the member states finally acknowledged what had been evident for months –the substantive divisions on central issues were too deep and the political will too puny to bridge the gaps. In recent weeks, there have been frantic calls for quick action to restart the negotiating process. That would be a mistake.

The credibility of world leaders – and the credibility of the fora through which they express themselves, such as the G-7, the newly upgraded G-20, APEC, the World Bank, and the IMF – has already been severely debased by a succession of toothless and increasingly vacuous demands that the negotiators settle their differences and wrap up the round. Beyond this, the stature of the WTO itself has suffered incalculable collateral damage by seven years of fruitless, arcane negotiations, and more recently by the petty bickering and blame-games of national trade ministers. And recent in-depth analysis by Paul Blustein (2008) of the Brookings Institution on the breakdown in Geneva, first last July and then again in December, demonstrates that negotiators were still far apart on a number of issues – not tantalizingly within reach of an agreement after a few more adjustments and compromises.

Conclude a ‘small’ Doha deal and plot a survival course

It is time to step back and build political support for a limited, scaled-down conclusion to the Doha Round and then plot a course for the long-term survival of the multilateral system and the WTO.

Bringing the current round to a conclusion before moving to potentially more radical reforms of the WTO is defensible on both substantive and political grounds. While one cannot be certain of the exact details of what was on the table in December, an economic analysis by Antoine Bouet and David Laborde of the International Food Policy Research Institute of the July 2008 proposals estimated small, but positive gains – an increase of world trade by more than $300 billion per annum and real income gain of $59 billion.
Hidden within these small numbers, however, were significant constraints or elimination of important trade distortions, such as the elimination of agricultural export subsidies, the reduction of most US domestic agricultural subsidies, reduction of agricultural tariffs in rich countries by about 50% (admittedly with important loopholes), the mandate of a 10% cap on developed country tariffs, and the establishment of a 20% cap (again with some loopholes) on most developing-country tariffs.

Of equal, if not greater, import, is that a limited agreement would deter backsliding toward protection as the rapidly cascading global financial and economic crisis tempts nations to raise tariffs from their current levels to their (much higher) legal limits. Bouet and Laborde estimate that such a course could decrease world trade by $0.7 to $1.8 trillion annually.

Why we can’t dump Doha and start brand-new negotiations

There are dissenters who argue against an effort to revive Doha and are pressing to bypass the current negotiations and move directly to a new round of global Bretton Woods talks that would introduce sweeping new authority for the WTO. In their recent essay in Foreign Affairs, trade economists Aaditya Mattoo and Arvind Subramanian espouse this cause. Positing the “limited relevance” of the Doha agenda with “little of consequence” on the table, the two economists recommend a vastly expanded negotiating remit (in some instances in conjunction with other international institutions), including food security, energy and climate change, competition policy, new currency and financial regulations, and supervision of sovereign wealth funds.

There are two huge problems with proceeding in this manner. First, WTO members are fiercely protective of their rights, and many would rebel against a wholesale revision of the 2001 Doha ministerial decisions regarding the substantive agenda. Second, the issues championed by Mattoo and Subramanian are exceedingly complex could take years to sort out. Further, a move to short-circuit the negotiating process would be taken as a direct, coercive attack on the policy space of the developing world – this is particularly true of the larger countries such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Attempting to move directly to a “more ambitious agenda” thus would likely backfire and deepen the already deep divisions in Geneva.

Drastic action is need to revive WTO fortunes

But it is also true that drastic action is needed in the immediate future to revive the fortunes of the WTO and the multilateral system. To that end, Director-General Pascal Lamy should move to suspend formal negotiations for one year, until January 1, 2010. Such a timetable would match political realities. First, the incoming Obama administration will have its hands full in the immediate future with the economic crisis and recession. Planning and pushing through a huge stimulus package, reforming health care, shoring up the US housing system, and constructing a new energy policy – to name just a few big-ticket items – will tax its human and intellectual resources to the maximum. In addition, though the Democratic Party platform endorses a successful conclusion of the Doha Round, President Obama will still face a difficult time constructing a coalition to support a Doha package. In the last few weeks, powerful trade associations from the US agricultural and manufacturing sectors have signalled adamant opposition to the compromises on the table in Geneva, and these concerns were strongly echoed by congressional leaders of both parties.

Further, over the course of the next year, two other key WTO actors, the EU and India, will get new governments (India through national elections, and the EU with the arrival of a new European Commission). In the interim, India, particularly, will not be in a position to agree to politically difficult compromises; and the EU will be in a holding pattern.

Engage the WTO in halting crisis-linked protectionism

Suspension of the formal negotiations over the next twelve months would not preclude important incremental actions to attempt to head off a wave of protection in the interim and enhance the chances for the ultimate success of the Doha Round.

  1. With Lamy’s leadership, WTO trade ministers should formally agree to a “stand still” pact, by which all member states would pledge not to introduce new protectionist measures (increased tariff rates, a surge of safeguard actions, investment restrictions) in coming months. WTO members could agree to a new system of surveillance that would track and report all new national trade restrictions. Of course, there would be no legal recourse to new protectionist measures, but “naming and shaming” would act as an important deterrent.
  2. As recommended by development specialist Kimberly Elliot, rich countries could unilaterally implement their Doha commitment for “duty free, quota free” treatment for the exports of the poorest countries
  3. As suggested by two leading international trade economists, Richard Baldwin and Simon Evenett, developed countries should move forward on aid and technical support for trade facilitation (upgrading and cutting red tape at border crossings) for developing countries, even to the point of establishing a provisional fund to support such efforts.
The US is the linchpin player: Is Obama a multilateralist or protectionist?

In all of this, whatever its own multiple economic problems, the US remains the “indispensable nation” and guarantor of the global trading system.
As a candidate, Senator Obama was equivocal on trade issues. Yet a constant theme of his campaign was the necessity for the US to eschew unilateralism and reassert its support for global teamwork. Thus it will be important for President Obama early on to enlist the soaring rhetoric that will define his presidency in the cause of the multilateral trading system embodied in the WTO.


Baldwin, Richard, and Evenett, Simon J., “Restoring the G20s credibility on Trade: Plan B and the WTO trade talks,” Voxeu, December 13, 2008.
Bouet, Antoine, and Laborde, David, “The potential cost of a failed Doha Round,” IFPRI Briefing Note, November, 2008.
Blustein, Paul, “The Nine-Day Misadventure of the Most Favored Nations: How the WTO’s Doha Round Negotiations Went Awry in July 2008,” Brookings Global Economy and Development, Brookings Institution, December 2008.
Elliot, Kimberly Ann, “Does the Doha Round Matter,Current History, January 2009.
Mattoo, Aaditya, and Subramanian, Arvind, “From Doha to the Next Bretton Woods: A New Multilateral Agenda,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009.

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