Simulating consensus

meta-creation_date: 9 October, 2003 I’ve spent the past two days teaching a course on WTO market access negotiations at the “International Development Law Organization(link to the IDLO global website)”: offices in Sydney. On the second day of the course, the participants from eleven Asian and Pacific countries tried their hands at reaching agreement on the ‘substantial reduction of market access barriers’ that has so far eluded governments in the Doha round of WTO negotiations. The ‘scenario’ I wrote for this simulation of WTO negotiations is, of course, a work of the imagination: it comprises four economies, with official and private industry ‘stakeholders’ and a detailed ‘back story’ both for the economies themselves and the ‘stakeholders’ in each economy. You’ll find copies here. The course participants are senior officials of trade, legal and economic agencies in their own countries, so the simulation produced some remarkably faithful echoes of the real market access negotiations.
Government representatives in the simulation took a conservative approach to negotiating proposals. They felt constrained by their ‘private sector’ advisors’ demands, were mindful of tactical opportunitites to secure advantage over thier negotiating partners but were under considerable pressure to reach a workable compromise in the available time. ‘Private sector’ representatives, including industry groups, unions and other ‘civil society’ groups with opposing views, were uncompromising in demands of government but ultimately tended to balance each other out in national councils. Given the ‘voting’ procedure I used in this simulation—which allows the industry and ‘civil society’ groups to determine the outcome through a popularity poll on the proposals—the results were very similar to the Cancun results too. No proposal, ultimately, won a sufficient plurality of votes to be a proxy for ‘consensus’. What does the result signify? That trade negotiations are hoplessly complex, disheartening, frustrating and doubtfullly useful? These are certainly all remarks that have been made about the CancZn talks. Another way of looking at the ‘failure’ is that it fairly accurately reflects the difficulty of balancing national ambitions, sectoral interests and the global common good (lower trade barriers, growing global markets) in WTO negotiations. The political economy of the world trading system is more complex than it may appear in the comic book[⇒ related story] versions or even in economics texts. I found it interesting that the participants in the IDLO course believed that, based on the experience of a first run through the simulation, they would get closer to agreement if they had had more time to run through the simulation again. This too is an accurate reflection of the WTO process: it takes a long time to complete a WTO ’round’ because, like all distributive negotiations, WTO negotiations are mostly a process of discovery.

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