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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