Blogs & Comment

At Doha, politics trumps compassion, reason

Anyone who’s been following the Doha round at the World Trade Organization (even if that someone’s only been following casually–and really who could take it full-time?) cannot even pretend to be surprised that yet again the trade talks have faltered.
After all, these talks, which were supposed to define the development agenda of the WTO, have been going, going, going, but not quite gone, almost since they started seven years ago. Two years ago, a previous last-ditch attempt at reaching “modalities” (trade-speak for agreements among the 150-odd member countries on ways to move forward) failed in Geneva (see my columnfrom summer 2006).
Yesterday, renewed talks in Geneva failed after Indiaa newish power in the developing country campsquashed the negotiations on agriculture (which are linked to negotiations on services and manufactured goods) when it refused to give in on its demand for significant “emergency” powers to prevent a flood of cheap food imports damaging its farming sector. India’s chief negotiator, Kamal Nath, claimed to have the support of dozens of other developing countries in standing firm on such “special security measures,” or SSMs, against demands to water them down from the United States.
Much chatter out there seems to be about whether this spells the end of the Doha round. (If you want to hear WTO director general Pascal Lamy’s inimitably dry take on the collapse, check this out.) I attended the Hong Kong ministerial meeting back in December 2005, and my sense (for what it’s worth) is that it ain’t over till it’s over. They’ll talk again, and will creep towards a resolution. The question is, will any resolution even matter by the time they get around to one?
I’m not going to get into the obvious merits of free trade in agriculture, services and goods here. I’ve done it before ad nauseam, as have many people who are smarter than me. (For instance, see Andrew Coyne’s recent postat, which lists some of Canada’s more egregious transgressions against the free trade cause.)
Let’s just for the moment point out some ironies. For one, what’s the logic of defending a farming community against cheap food imports, all in the name of food security, in a nation that cannot feed its people? According to the UN World Food Programme, India is home to nearly halfof the world’s hungry; more than a third of the population consumes less than 80% of minimum energy requirementsa threshold below which the WFP considers people to be, ironically, “food-insecure.”
On the other hand, what’s the logic of going to the wall over what is, from the U.S. point of view, clearly a minor point of principle, when so much else is at stake in terms of opening up important markets to American goods and services? It makes no senseunless, as a cynic might charge, the point is to maintain the politically expedient but economically appalling level of farm support in the States, as embodied in the most recent U.S. Farm Bill?
The convenient myth among politicos and some trade-watchers is that Doha doesn’t matter, that it’s just a bunch of bureaucratic polyannas getting together to discuss how many modalities can dance in a blue box. But the inconvenient reality is that real people (consumers here, the poor around the world) pay dearly for the protectionism that keeps free trade an elusive dreamand the Doha round always having to come back from the dead.