After 20 years the fun has gone out of this story. A year ago we discussed at IATP the idea of setting up a clock that would mark the time since the Doha round began to highlight how deep the disagreements were. It was back when every other month WTO Director General Pascal Lamy would say something like, “a final agreement is within reach.” Mercifully, they stopped the charade and called it quits for now. But the truth of the matter is that the clock stopped on the WTO in 1994.
The Uruguay Round, which transformed the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) into the World Trade Organization (WTO) was launched in 1986. Eight years later, there was still no agreement. Everyone points to the Agreement on Agriculture as the stumbling block, but given delegates’ inability to solve the agriculture issues, it is hard to believe that other big topics like banking, insurance and telecoms – what the WTO calls “services” – would have been much easier.
To get past the obstacle of agriculture, and declare the Uruguay Round completed, the WTO artfully created the “Built-in Agenda” of issues not yet resolved, to be taken up at subsequent ministerials. This sleight of hand allows diplomats and negotiators to run back to their capitols saying we had a success and we gave away nothing! The Built-in Agenda is still pending.
Having attended most of the WTO ministerials, it is my impression that the closest they came to an agreement was in Seattle. Of course, this may seem hard to believe, given the tens of thousands of demonstrators, the police riot and the virtual lockdown of the WTO meeting, but for those of us who sat up those tense nights with pounding headaches from the swamp of tear gas that covered downtown, it seemed very close indeed. The United States was chairing the meeting. Many delegates were absent either because the chaos in the streets prevented them from getting to the hall, or because they chose not to enter out of solidarity with the citizens being gassed and pummeled in the street. And at the WTO, not being present is counted as a yes vote. The U.S. and its European partners were pushing through measure after measure. On top of the other forms arm twisting to get their way, an empty hall was a golden opportunity for developed countries to move an agenda that would further their goals.
NGOs from around the world met to strategize at IATP’s Media Center, located in the historic Town Hall in Seattle, with one half of the building in the police curfew area and the other half outside. Who did we know? How could we get information into delegate’s mail boxes? What hotels were friendly delegates staying at? We were scrambling. In the end, though, what stopped the railroad was the voice of a delegate from Burma, who spoke from the floor and asked the U.S. chair person why the process was so undemocratic. Bang, down came the gavel. Meeting adjourned. The U.S. wasn’t going to be accused of hosting an undemocratic WTO ministerial in its home territory of Seattle. It was a close call for opponents of corporate-led globalization.
The Doha ministerial was another story. Held within weeks of 9/11 in the small country of Qatar, the meeting was under tight security. U.S. Marines in civilian clothes, their machine pistols tucked under their sports shirts, patrolled the halls. Dogs and soldiers everywhere. Only a couple hundred NGO participants attended. Even in this moment of broad-based international sympathy for the US, the talks amounted to largely a lot of rhetoric about commitments to developing countries, and an agreement to try to launch a new round.
Cancun in 2003 and Hong Kong in 2005 – again, no agreement. Cancun went so badly that the Mexicans closed the meeting a day ahead of schedule. Now a “mini-ministerial” in the safety of the WTO’s hometown, Geneva. Pascal Lamy turned to the world food crisis as the reason to approve the Doha round and in the end the talks broke down because developing countries feared agreement would in fact worsen their food security, which for many are already at the breaking point.
After 20 years of failure, the blame game is well rehearsed, but the truth of the matter is that global capital overreached. The WTO’s failure leaves a bitter taste in countries racked by food riots and starvation and underdevelopment. There is no turning our back on the real issues of trade and development, which demand thoughtful and equitable multilateral cooperation. Too bad we had to waste all this time stopping a bad idea. And maybe now we can start talking about the kind of international trading system that can build a fair and just world economy.