This post also appeared on the Huffington Post.
I write about trade so I feel that I should say something about the trade ministers’ meeting that concluded yesterday in Geneva. But what is there to say, especially if I want to follow my mother’s advice about not saying anything if I can’t say something nice? There have been almost too many to count of failed meetings trying to bring the ill-fated Doha Round of trade negotiations to a close. This one was supposed to be about institutional issues and how to strengthen the WTO for the future; Doha dominated anyway.
There were lots of nice words about finishing the round next year and WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy concluded that the expressed desires to do this, “provided the ‘political energy’ to organize work for the coming months.” But no concrete progress was made, squabbling continued over a number of issues, and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk blocked a call by some ministers to schedule another ministerial meeting early in 2010 to take stock of where Doha stands. (There will be a meeting, but no commitment to having it at the ministerial level.)
To use another theatrical allusion, the Doha Round has come to feel like “Waiting for Godot,” with President Obama as Godot. Roughly a year ago, I wrote about Congressman Xavier Becerra’s (D-CA) decision to remove his name from consideration for the top USTR job because he said he had realized that trade “wouldn’t be priority number one, and it might not be number two or three.” I noted then that this was understandable, given the state of the economy and the other huge problems facing the United States, from health care to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But our trading partners are getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of movement. Moreover, in the absence of something positive, there is a growing risk of anti-trade initiatives filling the vacuum.
One thing that President Obama should do in the first half of next year to create positive energy around trade—and development—is to press Congress to quickly pass unilateral trade preference reform that fully opens the U.S. market to the exports of the world’s poorest countries. With Brazil’s announcement in Geneva that it would no longer wait for Doha to end before implementing a “duty-free, quota-free” (DFQF) market access program for least-developed countries (LDCs)—one bit of good news!—the United States now stands virtually alone in insisting that it can only move on this commitment, made at the Hong Kong ministerial in 2005, as part of a final Doha Round agreement (subscription required).
Congress has recently begun debating preference reform, but time is running out to pass anything this year. Since the Doha Round really isn’t likely to finish in 2010, how about using next September’s UN summit to review progress toward the Millennium Development Goals as the target for implementing DFQF? Since LDCs account for just one percent of world trade, and one-half of one percent of U.S. non-oil imports, what are U.S. policymakers waiting for? For more on this possibility, see my written submission to the Ways and Means Committee earlier this week.