A More Positive Spin on Concluding WTO Doha

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 5/24/2009 03:39:00 PM
I've made a previous post taking note of the cool reception given to the new US Trade Representative Ron Kirk during his first visit to WTO headquarters in Geneva. In the interest of fairness, however, I should add a couple of qualifiers and present more sanguine opinions. (Also, I have to erase bookmarks stacking up in my bookmarking account.) First up, Reuters notes that despite its lessened stature in international politics, the rest of the world is still "Waiting for Godot" (the US) like in the famous play by Samuel Beckett. Has Washington's attention gone to presumably heftier matters like keeping America afloat?
The diplomats spoke at a lunch hosted by the National Foreign Trade Council on condition they not be identified. They said they received "mixed messages" during their Washington visit about the U.S. position on the talks, which launched in 2001 with the goal of helping poor countries prosper through trade.

On the one hand, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and senior trade lawmaker Charles Rangel, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, spoke positively about Doha and told the diplomats they don't want to "unravel" progress made on the agreement thus far, the group said.

But other Washington groups and think tanks said trade was not a priority for the United States because of the economic crisis, and some continued to express reservations. "I don't understand what's going on here," a diplomat said.
Despite the less-than-enthusiastic reception for Kirk at Geneva, his visit may have nonetheless generated some forward momentum. This is especially so for the proposed supplementation (replacement?) of modalities or across-the-board tariff reduction negotiations with bilateral market access negotiations or scheduling instead. There may also be more acceptance of sectoral deals by the South in the offing. Again from Reuters:
Kirk took up a Canadian proposal to move beyond the current focus of talks which aim to reach an outline deal on the formulas for cutting tariffs and subsidies, known in WTO jargon as modalities, and go straight into detailed bilateral negotiations on cutting individual tariffs, known as scheduling.

U.S. ambassador Peter Allgeier told Wednesday's meeting this was not about skipping modalities or dropping multilateral talks but supplementing them in the interests of transparency. Negotiators would have a clear idea of what they would get in sectors that interest them, giving them more confidence to negotiate the overall deal.

This approach met with more understanding. "We have to have conversations with each other, and for political reasons we haven't been able to do that," said the trade official. "People seem much more ready to start talking."

It could work like this. A U.S. negotiator sits down with her Indian counterpart to get a sense of how many U.S. tractors India would be willing to import, and at what duty. In return, the Indian diplomat would make clear how many temporary work visas India would seek in return.

In fact, the WTO is training diplomats and officials on scheduling in the week of July 13, the chairman of negotiations on industrial goods, Swiss ambassador Luzius Wasescha, said. This was intended to help them understand the complex process, not skip modalities, he told a briefing.

Wasescha said negotiations on creating duty-free zones in individual industrial sectors such as chemicals or textiles -- one of the issues that torpedoed last July's talks -- had moved on from a rich-poor confrontation to an objective and technical examination of opportunities for importers and exporters. [This is the bit on sectoral deals.] "For the time being we have succeeded to bring this discussion on a factual level and we no longer have... theological discussions," he said.
Godot...theological discussions? That's some interesting wording, and I daresay some divine intervention may be necessary in completing Doha. Nevertheless, I don't think trade commentators like Jagdish Bhagwati would approve of this move towards bilateral deals (via scheduling) ostensibly aimed at ushering a wider trade deal (via traditional modalities) as the former do look like a detour from the latter. Once more, less endowed countries may find it harder to negotiate deals alongside those with massive experience in trade negotiations like the US and EU--hence the reference to the training of diplomats in the subtleties of scheduling.

If you're just going to have a noodle bowl of bilateral deals, scheduling, or whatever you call it, doesn't that render a multilateral round superfluous?