Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 09:12 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 09:12 | SYDNEY

Doha Round in peril, again


Mark Thirlwell

22 July 2008 10:33

Banana wars, Parma ham, and fresh melons. Yes, the Doha Round of international trade negotiations is facing its latest moment of truth. And yes, this is just another entry in what seems to have become an interminable list of supposedly ‘make-or break’ meetings since the current Round was launched in November 2001 with a targeted finish date of 2005. 

Choice previous examples would include the September 2003 collapse in negotiations in Cancun, the July 2004 meeting in Geneva that succeeded mainly in postponing all of the tough decisions, the December 2005 Ministerial in Hong Kong which achieved a similar level of success, and the July 2006 suspension of negotiations. There’s even a T-shirt.

Indeed, such is my cynicism surrounding claims that negotiations have reached a crucial juncture that I came very close to not bothering to post on the latest meetings in Geneva at all. Announcing that 'if the world’s trade negotiators don’t get their act together this time, the global trading system will collapse in a heap' has become the modern equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.

Still, I feel bound to point out that at the end of that fable, the wolf does in fact end up eating the flock of sheep – and sometimes the boy as well.  So, is the world trading system at risk?

The main point that I have been making with regards to the current Round – aside from noting the parallels with a certain famous Monty Python sketch — is that it will likely end either in disappointment or disaster. In my opinion, a public breakdown in negotiations would be a disaster for the credibility of the international trading system. On the other hand, any deal that can be secured at this point is likely to prove a disappointment in terms of creating genuinely new market access. See this paper from 2006 for a longer elaboration of these views.  

I have received plenty of pushback on both propositions. Supporters of the negotiations often argue that the ‘disappointment’ judgment underplays the important gains that will come from locking in reduced levels of protection, even if truly new market access turns out to be as small, as I suspect. 

Meanwhile, WTO-sceptics reckon that a collapse would be far from a disaster, pointing out that global trade has got along perfectly well since 2001 without any meaningful progress on the Doha agenda for most of that time. Even some WTO-supporters argue that all that really matters now is the Dispute Settlements process, not the negotiations. I disagree with all of these propositions, but suspect I have already tested the patience of the minority of readers who managed to get past the phrase ‘Doha Round’, so will leave it there. 

Photo by Flickr user jen_kelsey, used under a Creative Commons license.