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Managing Bali, Managing Expectations

In the absence of any breaking news on the Doha Development Agenda, I wish to take the time to look more closely at the December 7, 2012 statement by Director-General Pascal Lamy.  Links to audio and transcript are here.
After thanking attendees, Lamy begins managing expectations for the 2013 Bali meeting with a now familiar expression in his prefatory comment that “we still have a long road ahead of us.”  Lamy then reminded us that the list of extant items from Ministerial Conference 8 (MC8) which concluded in Geneva in December 2011 was long, that since January the WTO has made little progress, and earlier this year sought to clarify that there was little hope of closing the Doha Round, now in its twelfth year, anytime soon.
Lamy however is optimistic that a positive momentum this summer and fall, reviewed at this now closed MC9 last week can be continued in the spring.  Trade issues, particularly regarding agricultural goods, have been stalled for years, but the other half of the DDA is development, and here Lamy has reason to be a bit more optimistic.
Perhaps pragmatically, but frustrating to anyone who would rather see resolution and action instead of more committee dithering, Lamy reminds delegates as they receive instructions from their national governments or work in the various committees of the umbrella Trade Negotiations Committee that they keep three principles in mind.  These are worth some elaboration:  First, strive for practical solutions not impossibilities.  Second, build consensus before bringing the problem to the negotiations.  Third, be nice.
Now, principle one, in Lamy’s words:  “First, we need to work towards what is reasonably doable.  Members should be realistic in their demands, take into account other Members’ red lines and stay clear of what are known to be unattainable objectives.”  This is a message to think small, ask for little, and keep in mind that many negotiating members will simply never budge from policies which are narrowly beneficial to that one particular nation.  Of course, it requires little reading between the lines to infer that Lamy is referring not to recalcitrant small nations, which could not impose their policies, but is instead referring to powerful nations like the United States or India which have outlined inflexible parameters on trade in the past several years.  Do not ask for what you cannot have, Lamy is telling members.  Save time, avoid disappointment, and keep the negotiations moving in productive areas.  Now, I don’t want to be too dismissive of Lamy’s pragmatism here, both the U.S., India, and occasionally other large nations have shown little willingness to compromise, and this advice by Lamy may well be very practical and sadly honest, but I would much prefer robust talks about every members’ grievance.
On principle two, again in Lamy’s words: “Second, when advancing a proposal, it is the proponents’ responsibility to build consensus around it.  Make sure that you are working towards convincing the other Members, not yourselves.”  It seems eminently practical that members arrive at these short term conferences with much of the heavy lifting on their pertinent issue already done in bilateral and multilateral talks.  Again, it seems very practical not to expect a productive conference to be the initial site of enormous amounts of deliberation and negotiation, all of which ought to be completed in advance of the next DDA conference.  And yet this practical advice can have the effect of inhibiting the introduction of valid, new problems or concerns from member states.  “If not now, when?” may well become the bigger criticism of the failure of the Doha Round to address development priorities which have emerged since 2001 as members seek other venues for negotiation within the G20 or UN, or within national agencies such as the U.S.’s Department of Commerce agency, the International Trade Administration.
And on principle three, Lamy pleas: “Third, avoid being confrontational.  Any proposal should not be framed as a kind of take-it-or-leave-it position.  The negotiating process entails a trade-off between concessions and demands.  Be flexible and work together with other Members and around their sensitivities to achieve a common understanding.”  Practical, perhaps even this ought to be unnecessary to remind members.  Be nice. Meet in the spirit of productivity.   This plea for polite pragmatism is a, let me say, polite rebuke to member delegates in past MC and TNC meetings who have been anything but non-confrontational.  Part of me wishes the member representatives were exactly as Lamy requests, polite, but considering the arcane nature of the delegations, I for one also welcome a little drama.  It bears repeating, that there is inevitably a tension between achieving practical results in polite negotiations against the drama of passionate engagement on divisive political agendas by diverse representatives.  I would not like to see a prioritization of politeness undercut the passions of those striving in the WTO to facilitate genuine progress on developing nations.
It certainly is disappointing that Lamy is steadily undermining optimism about the DDA meetings as well as managing expectations.  Again, from his statement at the closing of the MC9: “Nor should we create unrealistic expectations. The main stumbling blocks of the DDA are still standing and many of the toughest nuts will likely not be cracked by the time Ministers meet in Bali.”  Many, including U.K. P.M. David Cameron, have expressed skepticism that the forum even serves a purpose, and if the WTO Director-General has little faith that the next biannual meeting will resolve much, then why not ask if there is any reason to even continue?


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