The longest trade round ever is now facing its Hamletian moment. The hard-won optimism under the new WTO leadership has recently evaporated as a thorny issue of food security remains contested. To most observers of the Doha round, the current stalemate is a frustrating déjà vu. We were in this last-minute, tormenting situation back in Cancún in 2003 and in Geneva in 2008. There and then, we all failed in the last bargain. Now, another last bargain is before us. Paradoxical as it may sound, we can skip this last bargain and just deliver what has already been on the table.
First of all, we must embrace what has been long forgotten: the WTO is far more than a deal. True, trade negotiations could be at the mercy of precarious domestic politics of major countries. From this realist perspective, any trade deal cannot but be elusive. Unfortunately, most WTO members, one way or another, are still reeling from the fallout of the financial crisis. Currently, their domestic political situations are not necessarily pro-trade. On top of this, India is facing a big election next year as it needs to shore up its food security law that might be inconsistent with the current WTO subsidy rules. The U.S. government is without a procedural silver bullet, a.k.a. the trade promotion authority, and is not likely to get one soon.
But isn’t this exactly why we created the WTO, and its predecessor the GATT in the first place? After experiencing the ultimate outcome of Realpolitik, i.e., economic balkanization, in a flash of collective enlightenment, trading nations decided to lash their treacherous political hands against the mast of global ideas and principles. Yes, we still negotiate under the WTO, yet at the same time the WTO is not a mere sum of bargains. It is a “community” built upon those ideas and principles.
To break the current deadlock, WTO members should modify a tacit commitment to the bargaining model of world trade. We all should step back from the taken-for-granted mercantilist attitude, and become agnostic about export volume, and elections, for now. Trade is not a game of winning or losing. A country might not always need to outsmart its trading partner to get a better deal. Instead, trade can, and should, be regarded a communal project from which every economic player involved, not only exporters and importers but also retailers, wholesalers, shippers, forwarders, warehouse owners, insurers, bankers, and consumers, can benefit on its own term.
Think of two big ticket items that now appear most deliverable in Bali: trade facilitation and duty-free/quarter-free access (DFQF) for the LDCs. Are they within reach because we negotiated well on them? Or are these topics relatively easier to negotiate than other tougher issues? Maybe, but the real answer comes from a diametrically opposite direction. These topics were deliverable largely because they are not necessarily captured by the conventional bargaining structure. They were deliverable mostly because WTO members did share some common values underlying them, such as market integration, development, etc. These two items should comprise the Bali package.
Bali might not be a good place for food security, which does not remain solely an Indian problem. It is a global challenge that requires a global response. It touches on many grave issues such as the green light subsidy, commodity inflation, and rural livelihood. To even begin an earnest discussion on these serious issues, we need extra time and energy not only from the WTO members but also other related international organizations, such as the United Nations. It is a bigger and more complicated project than could be fudged through within a few days in Bali. By soul-searching discussions and deliberations, WTO members should expand what can be shared in this highly controversial topic. Until that moment, we should not attempt to bargain on it.
Bali need not be a final destination for the WTO. Let us deliver what is on the table and move on. Note that both trade facilitation and enhanced market access for the LDCs will be a powerful engine for development, which speaks to the gestalt of the “Doha Development Agenda.” There will be tomorrow for unfinished trade businesses. We can stop haggling in Bali and save the Doha round.