WTO: Best Left for Dead?

With the failure of the Doha round of negotiations in late July, some optimistic defenders of corporate globalization will tell you that the World Trade Organization (WTO) is taking a “time out.” Most observers, however, are calling the suspension of talks a “collapse.” India’s trade minister, Kamal Nath, has judged that the trade negotiations are now somewhere “between intensive care and the crematorium,” and the future of the organization itself is in question.

The question for progressives is: What does this mean for the future of the “free trade” agenda?

For the world’s poor, the WTO’s slip into a vegetative state is cause for rejoicing. The indefinite suspension of the trade talks represents a clear victory for the global justice movement, which visibly rallied against WTO Ministerials over the past eight years in Seattle, Cancún, and Hong Kong. Activists have long argued that, by treating environmental laws, labor protections, and safeguards for small producers as meddlesome barriers to commerce, the WTO fostered a trading system that benefited multinational corporations at the expense of working people in wealthy nations and in the global South alike.

Groups like Public Citizen, a public interest watchdog, rightly regard the collapse of the Doha round as a hopeful event. Lori Wallach, director of the group’s Global Trade Watch, released a statement arguing that “Governments and civil society around the world now have an extraordinary opportunity to create a multilateral trading system that could actually deliver benefits to the majority.”

The opportunity is genuine. Yet stalemate at the WTO presents new threats as well.

Ironically, while the institution was long derided by the left as an imperialist tool, it was also disliked by segments of the right. Bush administration officials who bristled at ever having to submit to a “global litmus test” viewed the one-country-one-vote WTO with suspicion, eyeing it as a potential multilateral check on U.S. prerogatives.

Approaching trade talks with a unilateralist outlook, the White House has been unwilling to make the kind of compromises necessary to keep the WTO afloat. Doha negotiations failed because the U.S., along with Europe, refused to make any significant concessions in ending its protectionism on agricultural issues. Even while demanding that poorer nations open their markets, elite governments channeled tens of billions of dollars per year into subsidies for their own farmers, giving the lie to the rhetoric of “free trade.”

When the Doha Round of talks was initiated at the 2001 WTO Ministerial meetings in Qatar, it was dubbed the “Development Round.” “Free trade” boosters proclaimed that it would bring growth and prosperity to the world. Developing countries weren’t buying it. Bolstered by the mass demonstrations of past years, their negotiators demanded that, before they agree to further pry open their markets, the U.S. and Europe make cuts in farm subsidies. Cuts were not forthcoming, and the preaching from wealthy governments looked both cynical and hypocritical. The result was the collapse of the talks.

So what happens next?

Wallach’s vision of a better trade system may ultimately be realized. But it won’t come easy. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorin has stated that, as the WTO unravels, international trade will operate according to “the law of the jungle”–where the strong lord over the weak. That suits White House unilateralists just fine, but it has given some progressives the chills. In advance of an earlier WTO meeting, British writer George Monbiot went so far as to publicly proclaim that he was wrong in calling for the abolition of the institution: “The only thing worse than a world with the wrong international trade rules is a world with no trade rules at all,” he wrote.

Outside of the WTO, the Bush administration has focused in recent years on pursuing one-on-one, bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with other countries. In such negotiations, poorer nations cannot seek strength in numbers. They can’t join a negotiating bloc like the G20+, which stood up to the U.S. and Europe at the Cancún Ministerial. The bilateral approach has allowed the White House to broker corporate-friendly deals with such countries as Australia, Chile, Morocco, and Singapore–and the Bush administration is pursuing many others. An FTA with Oman just passed through the House in July, and deals with countries including Peru and Colombia are now in works.

As Monbiot writes, President Bush “is seeking to negotiate individually with weaker countries so that he can force even harsher terms of trade upon them. He wants to replace a multilateral trading system with an imperial one. And this puts the global justice movement in a difficult position.”

Monbiot’s concern is valid, even if his conclusions are questionable. Confronting the bilateral FTAs will no doubt present fresh difficulties for activists. Still, that doesn’t mean that saving the WTO is necessarily a worthwhile task for progressives. After all, bilateral negotiations were advancing with or without the multilateral body. And critics of the Bush administration need not accept that our enemy’s enemy is our friend.

So far, efforts to reform the WTO have met with no notable success. The idea of transforming that body into an advocate for “fair trade” remains a distant dream. In the near term, the organization was far more likely to have cobbled together a bad trade deal that would have further punished the poor. Thankfully, that has been averted.

Besides, before preparing nostalgic eulogies for the WTO, we should make sure to check its pulse. Trade talks have collapsed before. The pre-WTO Uruguay Round of negotiations were stalemated in the early 1990s but later revived and completed. Likewise, negotiators ultimately returned to the table after the WTO’s Seattle and Cancún Ministerials ended in acrimony. The fact that presidential “fast track” trade negotiating authority expires in mid-2007 will probably rule out any U.S. return to the WTO in the next couple of years. However, the organization might yet be resurrected by a future administration that is more multilaterally minded than the Bush cabal but no less fervent in its pursuit of corporate globalization.

To prevent this, the global justice movement will need not only to take on bilateral FTAs sponsored by Republicans. It will also have to rebuke pro-“free trade” Democrats and build an opposition party that presents a real alternative to corporate globalization.

In short, there is plenty of work ahead. Those who want to fashion fairer systems of trade and globalization will need continued perseverance and creativity. Nevertheless, they can take inspiration from seeing the once-unstoppable Goliath of the WTO in the aftermath of the Doha talks, lying flat on its back.

MARK ENGLER, a writer based in New York City, is an analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus. He can be reached via the web site http://www.democracyuprising.com.



MARK ENGLER is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, April 2008). He can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com