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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