Who is to blame for the slow pace in WTO?

The out-going Director General of WTO has called for more direct exchange between ‘decision makers’, claiming that the lack of decision over the past month is due to defensiveness on the part of Geneva-based diplomats. But it’s not the diplomats who set the pace of WTO negotiations. Governments aren’t moving quickly because they are not under pressure for immediate concessions from business advocates or from the real timetable of the negotiations On the eve of his departure for the top job at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Dr Supachai has given an interview to a Swiss newspaper (Le Temps, reported here in the “New Zuricher Zeitung”:http://www.nzz.ch/2005/08/06/eng/article5991140.html) in which he suggests that the Geneva representatives of the WTO member governments are to blame for being temporizers: bq. “We need people in Geneva who can reach agreements,” Supachai was quoted as saying by the Swiss daily Le Temps, complaining that ambassadors of member states had a tendency merely to defend their own country’s interests. “Political leaders should send their direct representatives to Geneva to act as a bridge with the WTO negotiators. We need strong leadership from the main players to ensure that proposals are coherent and realistic …” (“AFP via Servihoo”:http://www.servihoo.com/channels/kinews/afp_details.php?id=94803&CategoryID=47) This just doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Would governments allow their representatives in Geneva to dictate the pace if they had a pressing agenda to pursue? Is there really any reason to believe that sending a different bunch of representatives to Geneva will change the rate at which governments change their policies? Since Members’ Ministers, deputy Ministers and top officials from capitals have regularly attended meetings at which some decision might be made—including the recent July General Council meeting—why does Dr Supachai believe that he’s not hearing from ‘direct representatives’? I think the truth is both more banal and more difficult to resolve than some sort of communications blackout by the shiny-pants crowd. WTO members know from experience and from political common sense that the negotiations will close only when the time runs out. Time does not run out on the nominal end-date of December 2005 but in July 2007 when the U.S. President’s trade negotiating authority expires (in fact, probably a month or two earlier than this). Also, some stronger engagement by commercial interests in advocating changes will be needed before changes in policies become governments’ preferred option. Gallagher’s Second Law of Motion in WTO negotiations ( why be modest? ) holds that, absent an external force, the haggling will continue along the same old lines until it can’t continue any more. The external force(s) that are missing at present have nothing to do with the diplomatic cabals in Geneva. As in other physics, it’s difficult for an investigator of negotiating physics to identify forces by their absence; I’ll know them when I see them. But I expect the effective forces in the end-game to be * The return of the USA to the multilateral agenda. The Bush administration cares, in principle, about a successful conclusion to the negotiations but its attention has been completely absorbed by the DR-CAFTA agreement since the beginning of the second Bush term. The Trade Representative (can you name him?) has been but invisible in Geneva.
* More attention from business advocacy groups. Not the usual suspects like the “International Chamber of Commerce”:http://www.iccwbo.org/ that is always publishing calls for action, but from business advocates in Member countries who have the ear of their own governments. One of the most notable characteristics of the Doha round by comparison with the Uruguay Round a decade ago is the lack of business pressure for change. Without such pressure, and taking account of Gallagher’s First Law of Motion in WTO Negotiations[1], Governments are likely to stick at the threshold of even much-needed changes (wasteful agricultural subsidies, costly trade-remedy action, pointless ‘safeguard’ protection, coddling of protected services providers). Meanwhile, it seems to me to be a bit incautious on Dr Supachai’s part to blame the Geneva diplomats at WTO. Most of them are also accredited to UNCTAD where he’ll have to deal with them in his new role.

fn1. Trade distortions in place tend to remain in place, absent some external force. Changes to trade measures mean a re-distribution of income, making political enemies of those whose profits are taken away but without winning the recognition of those from whom the burden is lifted.  This is the conservative bias in trade policy.

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