The big payoff could be approval from the WTO membership for like-minded countries to negotiate plurilateral liberalization, akin to the codes adopted in the Tokyo Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations (1974-79). One plurilateral deal would be zero-for-zero tariffs on trade in key industrial sectors, such as chemicals and electronic products. The concept of tariff elimination in a narrow category of industrial products already has already proven workable for the 73 countries (accounting for 97 percent of world trade in infotech) who have now signed up for the information technology agreement.
Other plurilateral agreements are possible - among willing countries - to cover, for example, services trade, severe currency undervaluation, export controls for the purpose of national food and energy security, and state-owned enterprises. But few if any plurilateral agreements will be possible if benefits must be extended to all WTO members on an unconditional basis. The Government Procurement Agreement, reached in the Uruguay Round, pioneered the sensible idea that no country’s exporters can benefit unless that country opens its own public procurement to competition from other GPA members.
Likewise, the notion must be dropped that a “critical mass” of countries, accounting for upwards of 85 percent of trade, are needed to create a plurilateral agreement under WTO auspices. Some emerging powers will not be willing to sign on to zero-for-zero sector tariffs, services liberalization or WTO rules on currency undervaluation - at least not in the next five years. But their reticence is no reason why other countries should not liberalize their mutual trade - and thereby spark growth in the entire world economy.
Early harvests and plurilateral deals will help open markets for U.S. exports directly and create new consumers abroad with stronger appetites for U.S. goods and services. That means more jobs for American workers. The Obama administration should accompany its initiative to open Asian markets through a Trans-Pacific Partnership with bold actions in the World Trade Organization in pursuit of even larger payoffs from the global reduction of trade barriers.
Sherman Katz is a senior adviser to the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Gary Hufbauer is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
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