Report from Geneva, the Debriefing

By July 29, 2008Policy Experts, Trade

So what happened? Well, the proximate cause of the failure was the hang-up on India’s and China’s insistence that they and other developing countries be able to break their WTO tariff bindings if they felt they had to protect themselves against surges of food imports if prices fall.

Why was that such an important issue? Because tariff bindings are one of the pillars of the GATT-WTO system ever since 1947. A binding is an inalterable promise that you will never ever raise tariffs above that bound rate. You exchange concessions with other countries and bargain on rates, and what you end up with is the rate at which you will lock your tariff in.

If the Doha Round had permitted bindings to be violated for some food products, it would have meant loss of market access for existing food exports, but would also have meant that a basic premise of the WTO had been undone – with the inevitability that this undoing would spread.

The issue was so central that it really consumed full attention, a fire so intense that it drew the air out of other issues. Everything else halted. And in the end, the two sides could not agree. Those wanting protection just would not be satisfied with something within the present rules.

But more broadly, there was little meeting of minds here. Pascal Lamy, the Director-General, took a real risk in calling this meeting. He figured if there was any chance of doing a deal this year, the agreement on terms of negotiation had to be done now. If the basketball was going to go through the hoop, there had to be a backboard off which to bounce it – and that was this meeting of ministers.

But, to be trite, it was a bridge too far. Issues just weren’t ready, whether they were in manufactured goods or agriculture. Ministers were being asked to make decisions on matters on which their deputies had been unwilling to agree – and based on my experience, just because you bring in someone with a higher title, that country’s position is not going to change.

On NAMA – Non-Agricultural Market Access – we actually made a little progress. The non-tariff barrier text was so non-controversial that no one even mentioned it. On tariffs, we have known the tariff cutting formula is too weak to open markets for us, so we had to look for deeper cuts in major industrial sectors. The goal here in Geneva was to move Brazil, China, and India away from absolute refusal to even talk about sectorals and to a position where they would at least be willing to enter into beginning to negotiate sectorals.

This was the NAM’s bottom line. I don’t know if, had the Ministerial gotten to that point, we would actually have achieved that objective, but all three of the countries were moving somewhat in that direction. On the other hand, the terms were weakening somewhat, so we don’t know what would have come of this.

Where do we go from here? NAM President Governor Engler has called for a cooling-off period. Everyone must recognize that there is now no way to conclude these negotiations before the end of this Administration. The new Administration needs to come on board and begin looking at this, and there will also be a new EU Commission.

There is no point in picking up where we left off. People need to think about what they really want and what they are willing to give up for it. But we must resist the wags who can’t wait to pronounce this the end of the WTO. Absolutely not. And here I am going to agree with Indian Trade Minister Kamal Nath, who said, “My confidence in the institution of the WTO remains intact, and we will take this up and move forward.”

The World Trade system should actually be viewed the stronger for having just gone through a difficult process of disagreement. It is flexible enough to withstand this, so long as we do not become its enemies and accuse the institution of failure, rather than a failure of some large new countries to realize that it is give and take, not take and take.

The NAM will certainly be looking at ideas on how to move ahead. One excellent idea that perhaps can gather traction is that of an environmental sectoral that would reduce or eliminate tariffs on products meant to help clean the environment. There are other possibilities as well. Since non-tariff barriers were non-controversial, maybe some of those could move ahead – so long as we get away from the idea nothing can happen outside a huge round.

I want to end my last blog from Geneva by saying how proud I am of Amb. Susan Schwab, Presidential Assistant Dan Price, Commerce Under Secretary Padilla, Ambassadors John Veroneau and Peter Allegeier, and the entire U.S. interagency negotiating team. They worked ceaselessly, with little sleep, looking for ways to make this thing work. If anyone could have made it happen, it was them. But even they couldn’t make it work when others just said no.

Thanks for reading these blog posts, and I look forward to coming back to Washington and to home.
NAM’s Man in Geneva
Frank Vargo

For the previous reports from Frank Vargo, NAM’s vice president for international economic affairs, please click here.

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