Fed Up

(First of a two-part series)

 Sometimes in life, there comes a tipping point when — enough is enough. And that pretty much describes the present mood in the Geneva-based World Trade Organization. The Americans, Aussies, Kiwis, Europeans, Canadians, Scandinavians, Japanese — basically, all of the most important trading centers around the world that comprise the vast majority of world trade — have had it. They are fed up. Fed up with India, especially. India’s new prime minister, the pugnacious Narendra Modi, has brought all WTO negotiations to a halt, thanks to his unprecedented recent veto of the only successful multilateral trade-liberalizing negotiation in the institution’s nearly twenty years of existence.  “Disgusted” even more, as one diplomat based in a European country un-delicately puts it, because Modi’s reasons simply defy economic logic.

Leading WTO members have also had it with various African and Latin American leaders like those in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Bolivia. The leaders of such countries have gradually eroded their credibility by making no secret of the fact they just don’t really believe in the WTO’s core mission of dismantling trade barriers on a multilateral basis. Fed up with how the economic laggards have meanwhile been holding the rest of the WTO’s 160-member countries hostage to their parochial demands.

Over the years, the WTO and its predecessor international trade rules-making organization have operated on two core beliefs. First, that trade liberalization must be done for the good of all members, on a multilateral basis. Second, that the negotiations to dismantle trade barriers will be reached by consensus — but with the expectation that member countries will conduct themselves with a certain civility, and restraint. The institution cannot function when those core beliefs are trampled upon.

True, some WTO members like Switzerland, Norway and Japan who are presently outraged at India have their own protectionist rackets that they defend vigorously in negotiations (think only of Japan’s 500-plus percent rice tariffs). But, in significant contrast with India, such respected WTO member countries always conduct themselves with civility and restraint. It is unthinkable that they would wreck the institution for domestic political gain.

The frustrations with India and the other chronic economic under-achievers who have anti-colonial chips on their shoulders hardly stop at the traditional “North-South” divide between the rich countries and their former colonial possessions. Privately, some key officials from countries that have traditionally identified themselves with the WTO member countries from the “South” — including Mexico, Brazil, Pakistan, and even some in Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Benin — share the frustrations. True, some of these same countries can’t seem to make up their minds which side they are on — Kenya comes immediately to mind, as do Tanzania and Uganda. Africans have often joined in the constant attacks against the WTO since it succeeded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1995. But now, there seems to be an emerging fear in Africa that things have gotten out of hand, and that vulnerable African economies will suffer the consequences of India’s irresponsibility.

And there are the more economically enlightened smaller countries in the “South” — like Panama, Costa Rica, Peru, and Chile — that have been prospering because they have wisely embraced the global trading system. These admirable symbols of what trade liberalization can accomplish have been leading by their examples. And they are growing weary of the continuing shrill attacks against the system brought by WTO members who just don’t get it.

In short, there is a growing belief in leading WTO circles that if the institution is going to survive, it can no longer continue to do business as usual. Leading trade diplomats in Geneva and other key capitals have concluded that WTO’s future ability to liberalize trade cannot be based on the traditional consensus-based multilateral approach, where any single member can enjoy veto power. Instead, the WTO’s future negotiations will focus on a so-called plurilateral approach, where smaller groups of like-minded countries that genuinely want to liberalize trade will do so. If the laggards don’t participate, fine. From now on, well-placed diplomatic insiders vow, no longer will weak countries which aren’t really important international trade players anyway, be allowed to poison progress for everyone else. India, for example has about a 1.9 percent share of global trade flows, but Indian leaders seem to think they deserve 90 percent of the attention.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy once famously said, “trade, or die.” Now, for the World Trade Organization, the new mantra is becoming “change, or die.”

Such are the impressions gleaned from nearly two-dozen confidential interviews conducted over the course of several months with key players in the USA, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This two-part series offers details and analysis aimed at explaining in in clear language what many thoughtful trade diplomats would like to say publicly, if they were not constrained by the requirements of diplomacy.

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An Institution Under Constant Attack

With apologies for the use of the personal pronoun, I have been covering the WTO and its predecessor the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade — the GATT — for more than three decades. Launched in 1947 by the United States and 22 other countries, the GATT became the world’s most successful international economic experiment. Seven successive multilateral trade-liberalizing rounds contributed to expanding global prosperity by slashing tariffs and dismantling trade barriers. The last of those negotiating successes, called the Uruguay Round, set up the WTO in 1995.

And that’s when multilateral trade liberalizing negotiations pretty much hit the wall. One could say the GATT morphed into the General Disagreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Remember the famous 1999 anti-trade riots in the streets of Seattle? Many Third World countries inside the WTO’s ministerial meetings quietly cheered the unruly protestors who trashed that beautiful city. There would be no Seattle Round. In 2001, the WTO did manage to launch the Doha Round (for trivia fans, named for the city in Qatar where that year’s ministerial meetings were held). But the Doha Round has been in deep trouble ever since.

In 2003 many African countries openly celebrated their success in killing that year’s WTO ministerial in Cancun. We came to make demands, not make concessions, the Africans boasted. Indian negotiators contributed to that failure, although to their credit, the Indian official delegation seemed crestfallen that they had gone too far. They had not meant to put the Doha negotiations in intensive care.

Then in 2008, a deal was close to being struck in Geneva that would have completed the Doha Round. Among other economic benefits, trade-distorting agriculture subsidies for both rich- and poor countries would be substantially reduced. Financial services would be allowed to flow more freely across international borders. And both rich- and poor countries would do more to open their markets to global competition. But that deal also collapsed in bitterness. While there is plenty of shared criticism for the 2008 failure, it was clearly India’s intransigent “non-negotiable” demands that did the most to poison the atmosphere. And this time the Indian negotiators, led by their abrasive trade minister, Kamal Nath, returned to New Delhi boasting of their triumph.

In those previous WTO trade spats, at least, everyone came away from the battlefield vowing, at least for public consumption, to do better the next time. Until this year, when some of the Africans and the Indians struck again. The bitter irony is that the present mood comes in the wake of the WTO’s most impressive negotiating success, where the rich- and poor countries (finally) worked together for the common good to give global trade flows a significant boost.

Meeting in Bali last December, the WTO’s then 159 member countries agreed to a so-called Trade Facilitation deal that promised, over time, a trillion-dollar economic payoff. Essentially, the wealthier WTO members have already been giving poorer countries hundreds of millions of dollars annually to help facilitate trade by fixing embarrassments that have long clogged Third World borders — corrupt customs offices and cumbersome red tape, inefficient ports, shoddy roads, and such. It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to understand why difficult borders prevent the rising economic prosperity that stems from enhanced trade flows. The Bali deal promised much more assistance to speed the movement of goods and services across borders. The deal was a win-win for everyone: both for giant multinational corporations that move goods and services across borders, and for millions of citizens of poor countries whose living standards would stand to rise along with the resulting expanded trade opportunities.

The Bali Package was the first successful multilateral trade-liberalizing deal in the nearly two decades of WTO history. Finally, the institution had shown that it could deliver something meaningful on the multilateral negotiating table. The general belief was that the success in Bali would spur the revival of the Doha Round, which now has been floundering for thirteen years.

 But now those hopes have been dashed. On July 31, India’s Narendra Modi vetoed the schedule to implement the Bali deal.  Since then, all subsequent efforts to give Modi a face-saving way to back off have failed. There are some (slim) hopes that meetings in the WTO’s headquarters in Geneva scheduled later this week could put the deal back on track. But the sad truth is that the Bali deal has acquired a definite Humpty Dumpty look. The essential trust in the system — that countries will honor what they have agreed to instead of negotiating in bad faith — has been lost. It will not easily be regained. Whether it will be officially declared or not, the Doha Round is dead.

The WTO’s wealthy countries are even bitterer because they had had to work very hard, for years, just to persuade the poor countries to accept substantial financial sums to bind themselves to do things they should have long ago done themselves, in their own self-interests.

Adding to the bitterness, Modi’s demands simply made no good sense. He was fighting for policies that are clearly not in India’s best interests. “India’s economy is today the least integrated into global production chains among the world’s top-25 exporting economies,” Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, Natalia Macyra, and Erik Van Der Marel of the highly respected European Centre for International Political Economy in a recent paper: India & the WTO. “India is failing in sectors it chooses to protect, and is only competitive in sectors where it chose to liberalise, for example its IT services sector and the outsourcing business.”

Nor are the specific agriculture policies that Modi has fought for in the interests of other WTO countries that import Indian rice and other grains. In recent years, and up to the present, India’s domestic farm policies have inflicted economic damage in other poor countries. India’s grain exports have distorted food prices not only in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, and on to Haiti and some African countries as well.[Coming tomorrow, the conclusion: “Hot (Headed) Yoga”]