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The General Disagreement on Tariffs and Trade

The General Disagreement on Tariffs and Trade

Nearly 70 years ago, with fresh memories of the disastrous trade wars of the 1930s, leaders of the United States and 22 other countries launched the GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The GATT was charged with slashing tariffs and dismantling other protectionist barriers to global economic growth. And the Geneva-based international organization delivered. By 1995, when the GATT morphed into the World Trade Organization, a series of successful multilateral trade-liberalizing negotiations had slashed average global tariffs, which had been in the 40 percent range in the 1940s, to about 5 percent. Even though many protectionist schemes remained, the WTO seemed poised to continue the good work. But in the last two decades, the WTO has descended into dysfunction, lurching from one bitter fight to another.

A deeply concerned WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo has bluntlywarned the WTO’s 160 member countries that the GATT/WTO system has been “living on borrowed time.” He’s spot-on. I’ve been watching the GATT and its successor global trade rules-making institution for nearly four decades — witnessing the gradual destruction of the world’s most successful experiment in peaceful international economic cooperation. Although the most recent crisis that sparked Azevedo’s warnings was averted on Nov. 27, at least for now, the tensions that have weakened the WTO will remain for the foreseeable future.

The root of the problem is that too many countries either no longer believe that multilateral trade liberalization is beneficial for them, or that they lack, for varying reasons, the political will to lead.The root of the problem is that too many countries either no longer believe that multilateral trade liberalization is beneficial for them, or that they lack, for varying reasons, the political will to lead. Too many shortsighted political leaders, forgetting their history, are back in the business of creating trade blocs. They are more interested in defending their own protectionist trade schemes to fret much about what they have been doing to the WTO-supervised multilateral trading rules. And without a shared core belief that the non-discriminatory global rules work for all, the WTO cannot deliver.

In Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama has never given high priority to the WTO. Neither have Republican or Democratic leaders in Congress. While individual European WTO members like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Sweden still believe in the organization’s rationale, the 28-member EU makes the notion of “European leadership” an oxymoron. Tokyo’s main goal in any trade negotiation is to preserve Japan’s stratospheric 500-plus percent rice tariffs. The Chinese now run the world’s second-largest economy, but they aren’t leading either. In parts of Africa and Latin America, leaders tend to see multilateral trade liberalization as a plot for economic domination perpetuated by their rich former colonial masters. AverageAfrican tariff barriers still hover in the 12 to 20 percent range. And when it turns to former colonies that enjoy playing the spoiler, India leads the pack.

In May, India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, cast a gimlet eye on the only successful multilateral trade-liberalization deal the WTO had concluded in nearly 20 years of trying. Last December, when WTO members convened in Bali, India’s government (then controlled by the leftish Congress Party that Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party trounced in this spring’s elections) signed a deal that was widely cheered. For good reason: The so-called Bali Package was guesstimated to give the global economy a trillion-dollar boost. The WTO’s richer countries pledged to provide developing countries with billions of “trade facilitation” dollars to modernize clogged ports, fix terrible roads, and streamline corrupt customs procedures. But Modi balked.

On July 31, the strong-willed Indian leader took trade facilitation hostage,refusing to sign the necessary legal protocol to implement it.

India’s veto — unprecedented in GATT/WTO history — brought the WTO into what Director-General Azevedo called a state of “paralysis.”India’s veto — unprecedented in GATT/WTO history — brought the WTO into what Director-General Azevedo called a state of “paralysis.” The good news is that after months of bitter wrangling, Modi released his veto, declaring victory.

Some victory. Essentially, India “won” the right to continue to increase the amount of subsidies that New Delhi has been lavishing upon its farmers into an indefinite future, without fears of being held legally accountable in the WTO. India’s “food security” program — paying globally uncompetitive farmers above-market prices to stockpile grains that are later doled out to the urban poor — has been widely criticized. Perhaps half the grain rots, or is sold on the black market. Meanwhile, Indian exports of surplus rice have distorted global markets for years. Undeterred by criticisms that the purpose of WTO trade negotiations is to reduce protectionism, not enhance it, Modi nevertheless claimed the high moral ground: asserting that Mother India is only fighting for the rights of the world’s poor.

The hypocrisy extends beyond agriculture. Modi has hiked tariffs on imports of high-tech equipment from other developing countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. Meanwhile, India’s main goal in the WTO’s long-stalled Doha Round of broader trade liberalizing negotiations — which the Bali deal was intended to revive — is the “flexibility” to raise all industrial tariffs even more, whenever New Delhi finds enhanced protectionism politically attractive.

As it turns out, that’s basically what many African leaders also want from the WTO: the right to raise tariffs and advance their own industrial policies — while the rich countries dismantle theirs. It’s called necessary “policy space.” South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, has hardly bothered to disguise hissuspicions that the WTO’s Bali deal was tilted in favor of the rich “North.” And some officials in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya also complained that trade facilitation meant opening their borders to import competition from giant multinational corporations.

On April 27, after meeting behind closed doors, a handful of African diplomats — nobody has publicly claimed credit — persuaded the African Union to “instruct” African WTO ambassadors in Geneva to try to delay the Bali deal’s implementation. As the AU, based in Addis Ababa, hadn’t even participated in the Bali negotiations, the power play ran into intense criticism from furious Americans, Europeans, and a long list of others. The Africans subsequently backed down, but the poisonous distrust that has paralyzed the WTO’s negotiations was back.

That distrust memorably first surfaced in late November 1999, when WTO ministers convened in Seattle, hoping to launch a new round of multilateral trade-liberalizing talks. The Battle of Seattle is best remembered for the vociferous band of anti-globalist protestors (colorfully dressed as sea turtles or ninjas) who trashed that city’s streets. Less noticed were the secret smiles from key African trade officials inside the barricaded convention center who were happy that the talks failed.

In 2001, it seemed trade liberalization was on the move again when the WTO’s Doha Round was launched. But then in September 2003, there was open cheering from African officials when WTO meetings in Cancun again collapsed in acrimony. The meetings in the Mexican resort had been intended to breathe life into the Doha Round, but instead threw those negotiations into intensive care, where they still remain. (The trade-facilitation deal that was reached in Bali last December was split off from the broader Doha negotiations, the idea being to harvest the easier parts to generate momentum to complete the Doha Round.)

Just a few hours after the Cancun debacle, I ran into a Kenyan diplomat named Mukhisa Kituyi in an Argentine-style steakhouse. It was a memorable September evening in the famous Mexican resort. Kituyi and his colleagues were celebrating that afternoon’s failure of the WTO meetings, washing down copious quantities of red meat with red wine.

“We killed it,” one of the Kenyan officials boasted, referring to that afternoon’s negotiating failure.“We killed it,” one of the Kenyan officials boasted, referring to that afternoon’s negotiating failure.

Kituyi is now secretary-general of UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. While he declines to comment, it appears the Kenyan official remains a trade skeptic. Kituyi invited President Rafael Correa of Ecuador to deliver on Oct. 4 a rousing Special 50th Anniversary speech at UNCTAD’s Geneva headquarters, just a few blocks from the WTO’s offices along the Rue de Lausanne. Correa railed against “an immoral and unjust” world economic order. In a world “dominated by transnational capital and the hegemonic countries,” the Ecuadorian leader declared, the poor countries should protect themselves by forming regional trade accords. “The world of the future is a world of blocs,” he declared. Led by an approving Kituyi, the UNCTAD audience applauded.

This is not a trivial matter. In recent years, WTO members have cut more than 300 trade-distorting preferential trade deals with various favored trading partners. They all violate the fundamental GATT/WTO principle that member countries should not discriminate against each other. Perhaps half of global trade is diverted through these discriminatory “free trade” routes.

The top U.S. trade priorities are forming two regional trading blocs, one with Europe and the second with some Asian countries. China is excluded. Meanwhile, the Chinese are advancing their own regional trade bloc that would exclude the Americans. Many Africans are looking to their own side deals with each other.

Preventing the re-emergence of discriminatory trade blocs is exactly why the GATT was created in 1947. It’s a history lesson that present world leaders would be well advised to reflect upon.

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

 

(The conclusion of a two-part series)

Note to readers: Yesterday, in an article headlined “Fed Up,” I reported that many members of the World Trade Organization have reached the end of their patience with a handful of members — India, and a few African and Latin Americans who love to nurture their grudges against the “rich” countries. Frustrations that such countries have poisoned the WTO’s negotiation atmosphere have been gradually building since the WTO was launched in 1995. The tipping point came in July, when India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, vetoed the only successful multilateral trade negotiation the WTO has ever conducted.

 As the future viability of this vital international trade rule-making institution is now on the line, it’s important to take a closer look at how the present fight started, and why. Today’s report offers more details on: where Modi is coming from, exactly what he wants, and who his sympathizers are. While India claims to speak for the world’s poor, that certainly is not the view of an increasing number of developing countries around the world. India’s trade distorting agriculture subsidies have caused food riots in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These days, complaints of the harm that India is inflicting upon other poor countries are surfacing again, particularly in Rwanda and other African countries. Concluding, the report highlights how leading WTO member countries plan to move on, with or without the cooperation of India and the other laggard countries.

So where is Modi coming from?

Modi, proudly, is a hardline Hindu right-winger, an economic nationalist who boasts of a 56-inch chest. He is a tough guy, a man who loves a brawl. His top political aide is dodging a prosecution for various murders. Modi himself has denied (unconvincingly) his role in the killings of some 2,000 Muslims in organized riots in his home state of Gujarat, back in 2002.

And in the past week, Modi has rather exuberantly been raining mortars and machine-gun fire across a populated India-Pakistan border area of Kashmir. The fighting, which has broken a tenuous truce reached in 2003, has so far killed nearly 20 civilians and displaced nearly 20,000 civilians, according to news reports. “The prime minister’s office has instructed us to ensure that Pakistan suffers deep and heavy losses,” a senior Indian Home Ministry official has told Reuters reporters Rupam Jain Nair and Mehreen Zara-Malik. Modi himself has boasted that “it is the enemy that is screaming.” Kashmir, with the possible exception of the Korean DMZ, is perhaps the world’s most dangerous border. A border where Hot Heads on both sides brandish their nuclear weapons.

Some of the other opinions that Modi brandishes are less scary, but well, unusual. Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 27, Modi called for an “International Yoga Day.” He asserted that “yoga,” “spiritualism” and clean living could contribute to a better global environment. “By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change,” he explained to the diplomatic dignitaries. Meanwhile, back in New Delhi, the clean-living prime minister has authorized “hundreds of projects” to clear pristine forests, making way for mega power plants and other industrial projects that previous Indian governments had rejected on environmental grounds, Tommy Wilkes has reported for Reuters.

Modi held the WTO’s trade-facilitation package hostage to India’s demands to be allowed — permanently — to violate existing WTO restrictions on the subsidies it is allowed to dole out to uncompetitive Indian subsistence farmers. Adding to the indignity: previous Indian governments had agreed to those WTO rules in the 1980s. And the Indian government that Modi replaced in May had duly signed onto the Bali Package last December. As U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said last week, India has now “reneged” on its signed obligations.

Moreover, Modi’s demands have left WTO diplomats scratching their heads, wondering what he might have been smoking.

***

Food Insecurity

Since obtaining independence from Great Britain in 1947, India’s leaders have never figured out how to feed their people. In the name of “food security,” Indian governments have been buying food from the country’s farmers, paying above-market prices. The grains are then stockpiled. Perhaps half of the mountains of grain rot away, or are eaten by rats. Much of the rest is siphoned off by corrupt (politically connected) operators for sale on the black market.

What doesn’t rot or is not stolen is then doled out to feed India’s infamously malnourished urban population — especially when elections loom, which in India is often.

Perhaps because politics trumps economics, Indian politicians — no matter which party is in power —  have been increasing the subsidies, making bigger stockpiles.  And they have been demanding permission from the WTO to keep jacking up the subsidies as much as they want, even higher than the allowable limits that Indian governments have pledged to honor.

In Bali last December, the Indian negotiators won a generous four-year “peace clause.” That gave New Delhi four years to go ahead and violate existing WTO limitations by increasing agriculture subsidies, without fear of being held legally accountable. As the purpose of the WTO’s trade negotiations is to reduce trade barriers, not allow additional protectionism, this was arguably overly generous.

Yet the four-year grace period still wasn’t enough for Modi, when he came into office in May. He demanded that India be given the “permanent” right to break the existing rules — and right away, by the end of this year, thank you. Many diplomats, in many ways, have told the new Indian leader that this would never happen. Undeterred, Modi, somewhat joyously, brought down the Bali Package, thus shaking the foundations of trust that the WTO must have to remain viable.

At least, the ploy has generally played well at home. Indian officials have launched a whispering campaign, some of which has made its way into various Indian news accounts, falsely accusing the WTO’s top leadership of favoring the rich countries.

Claiming the Moral High Ground

Modi, like all of his predecessors dating to Jawaharlal Nehru (who ran India from 1947 to 1964, useful information for readers who are crossword puzzle addicts), has claimed that he holds the high moral ground. We are simply demanding the rights to feed our own poor, and we are the champion the world’s poor, so goes the refrain.

Some champion.

India is the world’s largest exporter of (subsidized) rice. The subsidies distort food markets in other countries by driving down prices. That’s bad enough in normal years for farmers in African and other nations who have to compete with the cheap Indian rice. Of course, the Europeans and Americans aren’t exactly innocents in such matters. But at least they have long ago moved away from stockpiling surpluses that cause real damage in world markets, preferring to pay their farmers cash subsidies that are considered less trade-distorting.

But India seems stuck on stockpiling and other protectionist schemes that cause real harm to trading partners. Remember the 2008 food riots in Haiti, Cameroon, Senegal and other countries? Global rice prices had skyrocketed after India put a damper on supplies by slapping on export controls during the previous year’s election season. Not only has no Indian politician ever apologized for the damage those export controls inflicted — after coming to power this May, Modi quickly imposed new price controls on onions and potatoes.

More recently, Rwanda’s trade minister, Francois Kanimba, explained to Shawn Donnan, the world trade editor of the Financial Times, how India’s present agriculture subsidies are hurting his country’s farmers. Rice and sugar from India had been reaching Rwanda “at such low prices [that] you are left wondering if these are really global market prices, simply explained by the competitiveness of the Indian economy,” Kanimba said. Donnan noted that the same concerns are being expressed in Nigeria, Benin, and other African food importers. This is “why the solution India is seeking at the WTO, which celebrates its 20th birthday in January, is unlikely to be palatable to many of its members,” Donnan concluded.

India’s claims to speak for the world’s poor used to be accepted automatically in the Third World. Signs that that’s been changing surfaced at the WTO’s Bali meetings last December. At a press conference, India’s then top trade official, Anand Sharma, asserted that India was only seeking “food security” for poor people everywhere. Sharma was humiliated by a furious journalist from Benin, one of the world’s poorest countries. “You don’t speak for us,” the Benin journalist angrily shouted. Those of us who were in the room will never forget the emotions on display at that press conference. (For further details, see “India’s Bali Debacle,” which I authored for the Wall Street Journal Asia. The piece, along with two other investigative reports into India’s WTO stance in recent years, is posted on the Wall Street Journal section of www.rushfordreport.com.)

India’s Admirers

These days, Modi’s been enjoying his success in having placed himself on the WTO’s center stage, even though he is playing the role of a pariah. Modi knows he enjoys the tacit backing of envious fellow economic nationalists in places like Venezuela, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Ecuador and Cuba. Such leaders love to nurture their grudges against the rich countries, seeing the WTO as a tool of the rich. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa runs with this crowd. These days, Zuma must be especially envious of Narendra Modi’s nerve.

Zuma is another economic nationalist who is skeptical that the WTO’s multilateral trade liberalizing negotiations will benefit South Africa. But he might be better advised to seek some sound economic advice as to why South Africa’s economy has been losing its dynamism.

Two very savvy Pretoria-based authorities on what used to be called “political economy” — Mzukisi Qobo of the University of Pretoria and Peter Draper, of Tutwa Consulting — recently succinctly explained Zuma’s attitude on economics in a May 27 article in South Africa’s Business Day. Under Zama’s economic guidance, South Africa’s economic growth has been on a steady decline, Qobo and Draper noted. Nor does Zuma seem to grasp the “gravity” of the economic challenges that are holding his country back, they added. “He also seems to have given up on leaving a great economic legacy, and instead prefers to manage a balancing act of contending factions within the African National Congress (ANC).”

Zuma’s trade minister, Rob Davies, is a member of the Politburo of South Africa’s Communist Party. That fact speaks well of Davies’ personal courage in having opposed apartheid in the days when to do so was to risk one’s life. But it doesn’t necessarily suggest that Davies’ economic credentials are sterling. Many African observers worry that South Africa, traditionally the most solid African economy that still regards itself as the “gateway” to the rest of Africa, will inevitably be left behind. Watch the East Africans — especially the emerging ties and improved infrastructure linking Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya — many African watchers say. Yes, these countries also have their own economic weaknesses. And in the WTO, the East Africans seem to be split on whether to speak out in favor of India, or against. Still, one has a growing sense that their future could be brighter than South Africa’s, depending upon how well they manage to integrate themselves into the global economy. At some point, the South Africans will likely kick themselves for their lack of economic foresight.

Zuma first worked earlier this year behind the scenes with the Addis Ababa-based African Union (an opaque organization which wasn’t even a participant in the Bali negotiations) to reopen the Bali deal. Conveniently, Zuma’s former wife now heads the AU. But Zuma and the AU came under intense pressure, mainly from Europeans and Americans, but also by dozens of other WTO member countries. They backed down during African Union meetings held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in August. Since then the African Group of WTO members has basically been holding their tongues, trying to pretend that what India has done, hasn’t really happened. (For the background, see “Power Plays in the WTO,” www.rushfordreport.com, June 3, 2014). South African and African Union officials declined repeated requests for comment, as did a spokesman for the WTO’s Africa Group.

In sum, what the Africans started and India’s Modi finished was the tipping point. Leading circles in the WTO — the “North” definitely, and many in the “South” — believe that this time, the chronic naysayers have simply gone too far.

An Uncertain Plurilateral Future

While the WTO’s future is presently clouded, one thing appears clear: no longer will a handful of malcontents be allowed to poison the chances of dismantling as many of the world’s remaining trade barriers as possible. That means the WTO will turn away from its tradition of conducting trade-liberalizing negotiations on a multilateral basis. Instead, there will be smaller groups of like-minded countries that will work together to facilitate trade flows. This is the so-called plurilateral option.

The future likely model has precedents. The WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement has 43 member countries (counting the European Union’s 28). The GPA’s rules, which are only extended to participating countries, are aimed at improving transparency and competitive bidding when governments agree to award contracts to all bidders (as opposed to just doling out lucrative contracts to well-connected domestic cronies). China, New Zealand, and eight other countries have been negotiating to join in that plurilateral. No African country has shown interest in joining in such an experiment in open government. Nor has India.

India is, however, a member of the WTO’s Information Technology Agreement, a plurilateral WTO success story that dates to 1997. ITA signatories, including India, have slashed tariffs on imports of high-tech gadgets like computers and telecommunications equipment. But India has refused to participate in ongoing negotiations to expand the ITA’s product coverage to include new inventions — iPhones, iPods and so forth — that weren’t invented in the 1990s. In fact, Modi has already moved in the opposite direction: jacking up tariffs on imports of iPhones.

Late last week, the WTO’s director-general, Roberto Azevedo, described the uncertain future for further WTO multilateral trade negotiations, especially if “no solution” is found for the “Bali impasse.” In such a case, the director-general noted to a business audience in Toronto on Oct. 9,  “then members must ask themselves some tough questions — about how they see the future of the Bali package and the post-Bali agenda. And what this means for the WTO’s negotiating function.”

Translated from the nuanced diplomatic language, Azevedo was pointing to a plurilateral future for the WTO, at least until the benefits of multilateral trade liberalization become apparent to the laggards. It might even turn out that the Bali deal will proceed as a plurilateral arrangement. India and the backward-looking African and Latin countries will be offered the choice to be left behind, if they prefer.  Such, it appears, is their future — at least until the day comes when they will be willing to take off their economic dunce caps.

Power Plays in the WTO

 The African Union — which lacks official standing to participate in the World Trade Organization’s multilateral trade-liberalization negotiations — has nonetheless sparked a high-stakes diplomatic dogfight inside the WTO’s headquarters along the Rue de Lausanne in Geneva. The bitter wrangling threatens to derail the most significant negotiating success — the only such success — that the WTO has enjoyed in nearly two decades. (The WTO was launched in 1995, succeeding its venerable predecessor multilateral trade rules-making institution, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.)

Should the African Union’s power play succeed, the WTO’s credibility would be seriously damaged. “All the air will go out of our balloon,” as one European trade negotiator who asks to remain anonymous puts it. The reputation for effective leadership that has been forged by the WTO’s energetic new director general, Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo, (who succeeded outgoing Pascal Lamy last September) would be tarnished. Most importantly, aspirations that millions of impoverished people from the poorer corners of the world have for better lives once again would be put on indefinite hold.

The story’s backdrop — and the agendas driving some of the secretive operatives whose fingerprints are all over the AU’s power play — dates to the anti-globalist passions of December 1999, when some of the same people famously helped wreck the WTO’s 3rd Ministerial Conference in Seattle. But the current news is pegged to important events that transpired only six months ago, on Indonesia’s famous resort island of Bali.

On Dec. 7, 2013 there were plenty of well-deserved smiles inside the convention center in Nusa Dua, Bali. After four days of intensive negotiations at the WTO’s 9th ministerial conference, the multilateral trade organization’s 159 member countries had finally overcome years of failure to negotiate a truly big international trade deal. “In recent weeks the WTO has come alive,” declared an exuberant Azevedo. “I am delighted to say that, for the first time in our history: the WTO has truly delivered.”

Win-win, for the global economy

Delivered, big time. The deal promised to boost global trade flows substantially, upwards of one trillion dollars in the coming years, according to economic guesstimates. The core of the Bali Package was a so-called “trade facilitation” agreement. Trade facilitation involves a win-win trade-off: more money and technical assistance given by rich Europeans and North Americans to poorer countries in the developing world. Trade facilitation dollars and euros help smooth international trade flows in places that badly need helping hands.

In the poorer parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, borders are notorious for being clogged. Blame the usual suspects: bureaucratic red tape that raises the costs of transactions by slowing them down, corrupt customs officials, bad roads, inefficient ports, and such. The WTO’s richer countries are already giving about $400 million annually in trade-facilitation aid to help streamline border crossings, according to OECD figures. (Unsurprisingly, Sweden and Norway have been among the most dedicated players, and also the WTO’s International Trade Centre and the World Bank.) According to the OECD, the poorest WTO member countries stand to cut their transaction costs by more than 14 percent, if the Bali Package is fully implemented. And as soon as it is, more trade-facilitation dollars are promised.

Bali was also a big win for multinational corporations — Apple, Vodafone, GE and Caterpillar, FedEx and UPS, Ericsson, E-bay, it’s a very long list — that are poised to profit from seamless movements of goods and services across presently difficult borders. But anyone with a heart would say the biggest winners — the point bears repeating — were the millions of presently poor people throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia who will have new chances to earn decent livings, thanks to the expanded commercial opportunities. Many of these deserving people have probably never heard of the WTO or its Bali Package. So there was good reason for the smiles last December in Bali.

But not everybody left Bali smiling.  A handful of the WTO’s more economically troubled members who are always suspicious of rich-country motives — including Ecuador, Bolivia, and some members of the African Union who had resisted the Bali Package — griped that the Bali deal was designed to be legally binding.

Also, in recent months, some countries like Uganda and Tanzania, which had supported trade facilitation in Bali, have apparently had second thoughts about implementing the agreement. “[R]atification of the trade facilitation agreement within the next 12 months implies that Tanzania shall be compelled to import even more goods from developing countries, thus further threaten its ailing local industries and ignite job losses,” reporter Bernard Ampulla noted in April in Tanzania’s leading Daily News. “Moreover, Tanzanian producers find it difficult to meet international competitiveness standards and other technical standards, this being an area which still needs a lot of capacity building.”

In Bali, WTO members had agreed they would draw up a formal protocol to implement the deal by July 31. The legally binding accord would then go into effect by the end of July 2015, or as soon as two thirds of the WTO’s member countries (soon to be 160, with the accession of Yemen) ratify it. Negotiators left the Nusa Dua convention center exhausted, but with high expectations that only the technical language leading to ratification remained to be ironed out.

Most importantly, the atmosphere of distrust and mutual suspicions that had dogged previous WTO ministerial meetings had started to fade away. The success in Bali spurred hopes for quick progress to (finally) conclude the broader Doha Round of trade liberalization negotiations that has made little progress since they were launched in 2001.

But it took only a little over three months for the old resentments to burst back into the open. Now, it is uncertain whether the Bali Package will be implemented on its intended schedule — or derailed.

Surprise attack from Addis Ababa

On April 27, the African Union’s trade commissioner, Fatima Acyl, issued a startling statement from the African Union’s headquarters in Addis, Ababa, Ethiopia. In it, the commissioner revealed that, at an “extraordinary session,” the AU’s trade ministers had decided that the Bali Package should not be implemented until the broader Doha Round would be concluded. (Acyl refuses to identify which African trade officials had attended the meeting.)

Acyl, a former deputy general of the Agricultural Bank of Chad, is a polished young woman, fluent in English, French, and Arabic. She was born in Washington, D.C. on May 5 (her biography does not list the year, nor note that the African diplomat is eligible to hold an American passport). She earned an MBA with honors at Ohio’s Xavier University, in Cincinnati. In the 1990s, she was an associate in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ offices in Chicago, Il. The personable Acyl was subsequently promoted several times, ending up as a manager. Her resume marks her as a rising African star.

But perhaps a lesser star in leading WTO circles in Geneva, where it has been noted that Acyl’s otherwise impressive resume does not identify any previous experience in international trade negotiations. The available public record indicates that since she was named to her present position in October 2012, Acyl has been inside the WTO’s Geneva headquarters perhaps only a handful of times, involving ceremonial occasions. The African Union has only an “ad hoc” outside observer status in the WTO, and has no role in official WTO negotiations. Acyl did not respond to repeated attempts for comment.

But there is no doubt that Acyl’s April 27 statement boldly asserted a leading role for the African Union, in instructing African ambassadors to the WTO on how they should handle implementation of the Bali Package.

“A number of our countries feel that the decisions reached in Bali, while noteworthy and commendable, were not the most optimal decisions in terms of Africa’s interests,” Acyl noted. “We have to reflect and learn from the lessons of Bali on how we can ensure that our interests and priorities are adequately addressed in the Post Bali Negotiations.”

Then she added the sentence that has resulted in the present WTO impasse in Geneva: “It is important that at this Ministerial, we instruct the negotiators of the Africa Group in Geneva to formally submit language on the Protocol of Amendment — the legal instrument that will enter the TF Agreement into force at the WTO — to the effect that the Trade Facilitation agreement will be provisionally implemented and in completion of the entire Doha Round of Negotiation.”

The Doha process has been halted several times in the past thirteen years, most recently in 2008. WTO members have failed to agree on a variety of thorny issues involving agriculture subsidies, intellectual property rights, enhanced access to protected markets for both goods and services, preventing environmentally destructive fishing practices, to cite some of the most politically sensitive.

The Bali Package’s driving idea with separating the Bali Package for early ratification was to demonstrate that the WTO could start delivering important economic benefits to all members — aiming to spark revival of the broader Doha process.

But now the African Union wants to hold the Bali deal hostage, as Africa’s bargaining chip in the overall Doha issues. Acyl admitted as much in her April 27 statement, asserting that withholding formal implementation of the Bali Package “creates strong negotiating leverage to achieve satisfactory outcomes” in the broader Doha negotiations. Whatever one’s views on trade liberalization, the “extraordinary” AU session constituted an extraordinary power play.

Talks in Geneva

Taking its cue from the AU, the WTO’s Africa Group of countries has followed the April 27 instructions. (The Africa Group’s members are essentially the same as the AU’s; with the exception that Morocco isn’t a member of the African Union. In Geneva, Lesotho’s WTO ambassador is the spokesman for the group.)

On May 26 the WTO’s trade-facilitation panel met in Geneva to draw up the official protocol for implementing the Bali Package. At that meeting, Lesotho’s Ambassador Nkopane Monyane, introduced a document that he said reflected the African Union’s April 27 statement — essentially recommending only “provisional” implementation of the Bali Package, based on the outcome of subsequent Doha negotiations. The ambassador suggested informal consultations to resolve the differences.

The next day, Uganda, which speaks for the least-developed WTO members, submitted language that would clearly peg implementation of the Bali Package to conclusion of the Doha Round. In the meetings, Tanzania and South Africa also played important supporting roles, according to diplomats who were present on both days.

Strip away the legalese and the bottom line was clear: The Africans had essentially sought to re-open the Bali negotiations. (Talk about punching above their weight in the WTO: South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Lesotho together comprise one-ninth of one percent of global trade flows.)

“No Bali, No Doha”

The African negotiating ploy has not been well received. When he heard about Fatima Acyl’s April 27 statement at a meeting in Paris last month, Karel De Gucht, the European Union’s trade commissioner, hit the ceiling. The gruff Belgian’s outburst was not meant for public attribution; EU officials decline to comment. But privately, several diplomats interviewed for this article say De Gucht issued a very blunt warning to the African Union: No Bali, No Doha. Kill the Bali Package, and you kill the Doha Round.

In last month’s Geneva meetings of the WTO’s trade facilitation group, representatives from a range of countries — including Norway, the EU, the United States, Mexico, Hong Kong, Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore — have echoed De Gucht’s warnings, although in more diplomatically nuanced language. The Bali deal has very generous terms for the African countries, they have argued. The pro-Bali WTO leaders have noted how the trade-facilitation deal was designed to take the political poison out of the air, and build confidence for the successful conclusion of the broader Doha process. Don’t destroy the crucial good will, the Africans are being urged.

The African side of the story

The only African ambassador who responded to a request for comment was Lesotho’s Nkopane Monyane.

The African Union “is a member driven organ based in Addis Ababa, that takes continental decisions not attributable to any single member,” the ambassador explains. “Lesotho as a member, with a resident Ambassador in Addis, has not made any effort counter the Bali process.”

Concerns that his country is out to delay or kill the Bali deal are based on mere “speculative misinformation,” he insists. “I will guarantee that you will not find any evidence, written oral or in any form of presentation, of Lesotho as a sovereign state advocating a delay in the implementation of the Bali Decision.” The ambassador adds: “Lesotho remains fully committed to the successful implementation of Bali, conclusion of the DDA and stability of the Multilateral Trading System.” (DDA refers to the Doha “Development” Round.)

Other experienced WTO watchers point out that Africans are legitimately concerned that the Europeans and Americans have been slow to detail precisely how they intend to implement their Bali (financial) promises. When the Africans say, “Show us the money” on trade facilitation, they aren’t necessarily being cynical, one senior European diplomat observes.

Moreover, there is plenty of room for skepticism that the rich countries still lack the political will to make the necessary bargains that would resolve the difficult Doha Round issues. The Africans are clearly right to complain that the Obama White House in Washington, D.C. has never assigned a high priority either to the WTO or its Doha process. It is important to understand that there are “good-faith” reasons for African doubts about the rich countries’ intentions, as another well-placed European trade official puts it.

Heading South

But not all players have reputations for supporting WTO negotiations in good faith. Enter the South Centre. Based in Geneva, the South Centre’s 51 member governments range from Algeria to Zimbabwe. North Korea (not a WTO member) apparently finds the intergovernmental organization as a listening post, as does Iran (not a member, but which has official observer status in the WTO).

On trade, the Centre serves as a useful platform to advance the views of WTO member countries that tend to resist trade liberalization: Malaysia, Bolivia, Cuba, South Africa, Venezuela, and Tanzania. The South Centre does not cultivate a reputation for transparency; it refuses to disclose the sources of its financing, other than to assert on its website that the majority comes from member countries.

Transparent or not, the South Centre’s fingerprints are evident in the ongoing African moves to delay or undo implementation of the Bali Package’s trade-facilitation deal. The legal arguments advanced by the African Union’s Fatima Acyl, for example, dovetail with language used by the South Centre. On Nov. 15, 2013, the Centre published a “South Experts’ Report” that argued that the WTO should reject any Bali Package that would be legally binding upon poor countries. The “least developed countries should be exempted from undertaking binding commitments,” the document asserted. The paper also argued that any deal that might be reached on trade facilitation in Bali only be implemented upon the subsequent conclusion of the Doha Round.

To veteran WTO observers, the fact that the African Union used the same legal arguments first advanced by the South Centre is no coincidence. The South Centre’s executive director, Martin Khor, declines to comment. (A Centre spokesman was not authorized to share any information that wasn’t already on the organization’s website.)

Khor is a well-known figure in Geneva, where his basic approach to the WTO is that it lacks transparency and is a forum where rich countries foist their will upon poor countries.

Khor played a leading role in the vociferous anti-globalist demonstrations that wrecked the WTO’s 1999 Seattle meetings. He opposed the launch of the Doha Round two years later, and in 2003 helped cause the acrimonious collapse of the WTO’s meetings in Cancun. Another South Centre activist who has long been in the same anti-globalist network is Aileen Kwa. Kwa has written a book based on the premise that the WTO’s Doha negotiations are “a byword for the perversion of democracy.”

Last December, Khor worked against adoption of the trade-facilitation deal in Bali as an official member of the delegation from Ecuador.

A Malaysian, he has long been considered close to former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. (Long known for his tart tongue when it comes to anything American, Mahathir has recently blamed the CIA for a conspiracy to hide information on missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. Khor, a columnist for the Malaysian newspaper, The Star, has also been railing against spying by U.S. intelligence agencies.)

Ironically, while Khor is a strong critic of any economic proposal tainted with American backing, he personally has long benefitted from American financial support. For example, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which formerly supported Khor when the activist was with the Third World Network, has given the South Centre $1.6 million since 2009. Last year, the Ford Foundation chipped in another $250,000 — saying that the money was needed because “financial markets need the oversight of democratic institutions to ensure transparency and accountability.” (Another irony: of well-heeled American philanthropy citing transparency as justification for supporting an organization that has North Korea as a member.)

The $1.8 million American cash from Ford and Rockefeller far outweighs what some South Centre members contribute in dues to the WTO. Last year, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda, for instance, contributed a collective $362,481 in WTO dues. Given the South Centre’s secrecy, it is not possible to compare the sums such member countries give to the WTO.

WTO watchers will have their next opportunity to learn if the Africans have released their Bali hostage when the trade-facilitation group meets again on June 24 in Geneva to consider adopting the protocol for implementing the Bali Package. Stay tuned.