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Posted on April 24, 2011
Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organisation, said there was a ‘serious risk’ of Doha collapsing. Photograph: Anja Niedringhaus/AP
The scene: the green room in William Rappard House, a palatial if sombre residence looking down over greensward to the shores of Lac Léman in the suburbs of Geneva.
On the table lies the corpse of Doha, not yet 10, who has spent most of her troubled life in and out of care.
The prime suspects are there too: an American, an Indian, the man from Brussels, the Brazilian and the ambassador from the People’s Republic of China. All have alibis; all swear that they were devoted to Doha and never wished her any harm. But all of them have a motive and it is clear nobody outside the room committed the murder.
Our Hercule Poirot in this tale is Pascal Lamy, the director-general of the World Trade Organisation, the body responsible for policing international trade. Lamy is a marathon-running French intellectual rather than a Belgian who suffers with his stomach, but you can’t have everything. The question on everybody’s lips is: who killed Doha?
As in the best mysteries, there are plenty of twists in the plot. For one thing, Doha might not actually be dead. Indeed, there have been plenty of times when she has made a miraculous recovery after apparently giving up the ghost.
Lamy, who has nurtured Doha with tenderness through the most difficult phases of her life, is even now unwilling to say that all hope is lost. Exasperated by the wilful neglect shown towards his ward, Lamy said last week that there was now a “serious risk” of Doha breathing her last. He pleaded with WTO members to think about all they had achieved with Doha over the past 10 years and begged them not to throw it all away.
Others think Lamy is far too optimistic in his diagnosis. The Europeans are already talking openly about a plan B. The South Africans think it is all over bar the shouting. And, as things stand, that looks like the more realistic view.
To unravel the mystery of Doha, potential sleuths need a bit of background. It all started in November 2001, in the Gulf state of Qatar. Two months after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the birth of the Doha development round was supposed to symbolise a mood of global solidarity.
The object of the meeting was to give birth to a new round of trade liberalisation talks, the first in almost a decade and by far the most ambitious of the nine sets of post-war negotiations dedicated to removing protectionist barriers. It was held in Doha because Qatar was one of the few WTO members willing to host it following the anti-globalisation protests of the previous two years. And it was called a development round in an attempt to persuade sceptical low-income countries that this would not be the traditional carve-up between the European Union and the US.
From the start, though, there were problems. Before Doha was two years old, talks broke down in Cancun, when a group of the leading developing countries – China, India and Brazil – made it clear they had very different views from Washington and Brussels on how the infant should be brought up. Put simply, the developing countries thought the round was about rich countries making unilateral concessions to compensate for the way previous rounds had been skewed in favour of the west. Europe and the US said they would only give way if they got something in return.
That tension has persisted since Cancun, although the dynamics of the negotiations have subtly changed as the emerging economies have become a more potent force. China was admitted to the WTO just before Doha was born, and has taken full advantage of membership to find export markets for its industrial goods. It is not just the Europeans and the Americans who are reluctant about giving too much away to Beijing: some of the leading developing nations, such as Brazil, are also exhibiting nervousness. The poorest developing countries, needless to say, feel entirely excluded from the process.
Throughout, the thought has been that a deal is possible with a bit more give and take. Every now and then, the leaders of the G8 group of developed nations and the wider G20 group of rich and emerging nations have got involved with Doha, urging trade negotiators to end their bickering and bring the talks to a conclusion. This, though, has proved to be a bit like the occasional visit of a social worker to a child deemed at risk of harm. With the fundamental issues left unresolved, the neglect has continued.
Lamy insists there is more at stake than the formula used for cutting industrial tariffs, or even the threat of a full-blown trade war. He argues that if the international community cannot make a go of multilateral trade talks there is not much hope of success on climate change or financial reform, either. That looks like a spot-on assessment.
Who, then, will carry the can if Doha really is dead? The US will no doubt be the prime suspect, as it always is. Washington has always taken a hard-nosed approach to the round, and if it was unwilling to stop the subsidies to US cotton farmers to help producers in West Africa, it is hard to imagine the Obama administration giving too much away to China. Particularly with a presidential election race looming.
Europe also has some explaining to do. While less high-profile than the US, it has made it clear it will only give ground on agriculture if it can secure concessions for its service industries. Brussels has put more effort into cutting bilateral deals with developing nations that are skewed in favour of the EU than it has into completing Doha.
But China has also been prepared to let the talks drift rather than take an active role commensurate with its position as the world’s second biggest economy. India and Brazil have approached Doha in a doggedly mercantilist fashion, determined to gain as much market access in the west as possible while giving away little themselves.
But don’t rule out the possibility that the policeman was involved. After it took more than seven years to complete the Uruguay round of trade talks in 1993, the WTO should have known better than to have set such an ambitious agenda. Its purist approach to free trade has run counter to the realities of global geopolitics and historical precedent. All developing nations have used protectionism in the early stages of development; for many of the poorer nations the next logical step might be regional free trade areas rather than a full-blown multilateral deal.
This, and narrower deals in specific sectors, are what negotiators will now need to start thinking about. Unless something unexpected happens this week, Doha is dead. And they all did it.