Welcome! I am reminded by this past Saturday’s closing event at the UNFCCC Doma Climate Change Conference that Doma is home to another piece of unfinished international business: the WTO’s eleven year long and occasionally drama filled Doha Round.
A little by way of background: The Bretton Woods convention convened at the close of WW2 and established a tariffs and trade forum known by its acronym, GATT, where nations could peacefully negotiate trade related grievances under U.S. leadership. Like the UN and NATO, and other components of the Bretton Woods system such as the IMF and the World Bank, this organization rested upon the shared aspirations of the Atlantic nations Allied in the fight against fascism, principally the U.S., U.K., Canada, and France, but also would later include postwar Germany and Japan. These nations formed the essential core of global capitalist trade in the decades following the war and met, along with many other nations, in a series of eight GATT sponsored rounds, some lasting a few months, others many years. By the 1980s and early ‘90s a wave of challenges to the GATT framework, mostly from developing nations, led to GATT's evolution into the WTO.
This evolution occurred in the eighth and final GATT round, the Uruguay Round, which lasted more than 7 years– then the longest running forum, until the current seemingly never-ending Doha Round astonished everyone with its inability to resolve anything this past eleven years. By the early 1990s post-Communist nations in Eastern Europe and developing nations in Latin America and Asia demanded greater democratic participation in the biannual ministerial meetings and in the larger GATT framework. By 1994, the concluding Uruguay Round laid the foundation for the inauguration of its newly established successor, the WTO. Since 1995 the WTO has continued to hold biannual meetings, most famously rocked by protests in 1999 at its Seattle meeting.
Ironically, the protests delayed the WTO’s agenda on poverty relief and reforms of trade that were central to the aspirations of developing nations. This 1999 program would have been in concert with the Millennium Development Goals championed by the UN as well as a host of other multilateral efforts at promoting economic development and poverty reduction in the regions which had pushed for reform. That agenda came to the fore in the 2001 meeting at Doha, Qatar when the WTO opened the ninth round of trade negotiations.
The crucial disagreement between developed nations who have traditionally steered the trade negotiations and those in the developing world which seek greater democratic decision making rests almost entirely on agriculture policy, and therefore, this tremendous rift is something that will almost never catch the broader public’s attention. Developing nations, particularly India, but also exporters in Latin America and Africa, wish the U.S. would embrace free trade of agricultural goods on the international market by ending subsidies on domestic agricultural products which act as non-tariff trade barriers and are obstacles to the entry of agricultural goods from developing nations. In 2008, Congress– over President Bush’s veto– extended federal subsidies to large agricultural interests through an increase in spending on food stamps and direct subsidies to farmers. Agricultural interests lobbied for these subsidies while also asserting an unwillingness to see domestic policy subordinated to the growing pressure of international trade bodies, even if it was a repudiation of what observers would assume the U.S., particularly a Republican administration, would welcome: growing free trade sentiment in the developing world.
Despite progress and commitments made during the 2001 Doha, 2003 Cancun, and 2005 Hong Kong meetings, the disagreements over agriculture thoroughly derailed the 2007 biannual meeting in Potsdam. As a result, the Doha Round of negotiations has been stalled for many years, frankly out of developing nations’ frustrations not just in the WTO from 2001 to 2008, but with the Bush administrations’ unilateralism in the mid- to late-2000s on issues as far ranging as the Kyoto protocol, landmine ban treaty, international criminal court, and the administrations bypassing of the UN over the war in Iraq.
Much has changed since 2007, however, when negotiations over U.S. agricultural subsidies led to a stalemate between India and the United States. First, and not unimportantly, the unilateral policies of an administration which rejected the Kyoto Protocol, the landmine ban treaty, International Criminal Court jurisdiction, and a willingness to wage war without UN sanction is gone. Nations offended by American unilateralism in the Bush years are now dealing with an administration vastly different in tone, if, sadly, not much different on policy. Second, since 2008 developing nations such as Brazil, India, China, Russia, and South Africa have begun cooperatively applying pressure at the UN, G-summits, and WTO. This BRIC alliance, in concert with sympathetic nations such as Turkey, South Africa, and Mexico, have succeeded in achieving another substantial reform of the large global institutions akin to the GATT-to-WTO evolution: the G8 is now the G20, no longer based on that old post-WW2 Atlantic kinship between the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan but instead opening up to the largest 20 economies, now including developing nations such as Mexico, Argentina, China, Indonesia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the smaller nations of Europe via the membership of the EU.
The WTO met in Geneva last year amid general pleas by many world leaders to see the Doha Round to some kind of conclusion, and yet just this week Director-General Lamy has expresses a probably unfounded expectation that the 2013 meeting in Bali will resolve these longstanding issues. That the developed nations such as India, now allied with others who desire a multi-polar world, have not caved into the inevitability of unequal access to global markets for agricultural goods is a testament to the resolve of the world’s largest democracy to remain steadfast in their disagreement with the world’s richest democracy.
In the following weeks I expect to relate unfolding current news on the Doha negotiations in anticipation of the Bali meeting, look back on the history of the disagreements, and also take a close look at a decades’ worth of optimistic commentary that the large developing nations may well steer global institutions such as the WTO, the UN, and the WB toward addressing the concerns of the world’s most impoverished.