Is there any point in continuing to puzzle over trade policy and agreements?
Do they really make any difference to anything? It seems they’ve become too
hard to put together; but does that _matter_?
Since [about 2001], I’ve been writing a weblog analysing international
trade agreements, national trade policies and the post-WWII “system” of
government collaboration on trade (GATT and WTO). Among blog topics, it’s
about as popular as cleaning out the cat litter (… um, no, _less_ than
[that]). And, after the collapse of WTO’s Doha Round of negotiations, it
seems about as useful as a [driving manual] for the Titanic.
There’s less and less to say because not much is happening. A [largish
number] of regional/bilateral “free trade” deals are in various states of
drafting. But negotiations are desultory or stalled in many of them, such as
the Australia-China and Australia-Japan negotiations. The most interesting
potential agreement from a wonkish perspective, the Trans-Pacific Trade
Partnership, aims to pull-off a technical merger between some existing FTAs
(the details are eye-glazing). But the TPP promises, remarkably, _no new
access to markets_ because the Obama administration is dedicated to a
[stultifying] in-sourced [mercantilism].
In Geneva, WTO is pushing out a [long list] of disputes decisions –
including acceptance by both China and the USA of adverse disputes findings –
that may (or may not) open markets. But the elaborate negotiating machine
tricked out at Doha in 2001 has ground to a halt and, I predict, will move not
one jot in response to the Director-General’s solemn [jaw-boning].
The malaise has seeped even into the sheltered workshops of academe. I teach
courses on aspects of international trade to graduate students at the
Universities of Adelaide and Melbourne. But the Melbourne graduate seminar
will be terminated next year because the faculty poo-bahs are not convinced
they any longer need to offer a subject on the “political economy of trade.”
I’ve muttered about the [misaligned incentives] that lie at the heart of
WTO’s problem (not U.S. treachery as Bhagwati claims, implausibly), and I’ve
explored a number of different ideas about the failures of
[multilateralism] in general (trade, climate, security …). In the end,
I’ve arrived at the view that multilateral collaboration on trade
liberalisation still matters and that exotic proposals for “forking” the
trading system between the “willing liberators” and the rest — including
[current options] for “critical mass” agreements — are unsatisfactory.
So far, I have identified only two ways out of the current doldrum. Either a
powerful “hegemon” emerges whose interests dictate a return to the
reciprocal/MFN system of the 1950s-1970s (unlikely, undesirable), or; over the
next few decades, demographic changes, economic growth and the maturation of
social institutions lead to the re-alignment of policies in China, India and
other emerging economies with those of the “West” (although, perhaps not Mr
Obama’s policies). The world foreseen by the original Doha negotiating mandate
(2001) will be possible when the plurality of major trading economies again
put a premium on an open, market-driven global economy and on collaborative
management of that economy, including the exchange of “intrusive” rights and
obligations among nations designed to enforce transparency, due- (and
effective-) process and competitively neutral regulation of commerce.
Is this merely a description of some sort of trade-policy Utopia? An
intellectual exercise in refinement, but incapable of sustaining a _program_?