- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 6, 2001

Even the timing for the fourth ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO), scheduled to convene in Qatar on Nov. 9, has started a plethora of penetrating questions. Some of its members, among them the European Union, argue that in view of recent terrorist attacks a show of solidarity, boosting confidence in an already challenged world economy is essential. Others question the successful outcome of a conference under present strained international circumstances and caution against a new round held at all costs. Though demonstrators may be more reluctant to visit the explosive region than U.S. business representatives, security emerges as a considerable roadblock to Qatar.
Unforgotten is the failure of the summit in Seattle two years ago, when the proclamation of a follow-up session proved to be the only tangible result. Contrary to public perception the protesters leading the backlash against globalization and market policies with the claim that they are detrimental to the developing world, democracy and social issues, did not bring about the negative outcome. Actually, it soon became clear in Seattle that the necessary consensus for the implementation of major targets of the new world trade order including anti-dumping, subsidized agriculture, environment, labor rights and services remained out of reach.
Paradoxically, one of the reasons for the collapse in Seattle is the attractiveness of the WTO. Recognizing the advantages of world trade liberalization, its membership jumped from 70 founding nations in 1995 to 142 today. Seattle revealed that as the developing and newly industrialized countries began to define and assert their interests by shaping future developments and changing existing rules, new methods to achieve consensus were required. This meant that the so called "green room" policy, a decision-making process once pursued by the most powerful and wealthiest nations without scrutiny, had to be changed to facilitate open negotiations and transparent consensus-building mechanisms. The simple lesson of Seattle was not lost on WTO's leadership: the time of pre-scripted pre-negotiated binding guidelines was over. However, an effort to streamline the resolution of trade disputes by shifting from lengthy diplomatic negotiations, problem-solving and arbitration to a more legalistic approach has already come under attack as "judicialized" and politically unsustainable.
Notwithstanding substantial trade liberalization realized in the last decades by the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the WTO, the promise of truly open markets, as the developing world noticed, remains unfulfilled. While diminishing tariffs may no longer be regarded as prime trade barriers, questions of unfair competitive practices, restrictions of cross-border investments, technical norms and other protective instruments rank high among the challenges faced by the WTO today.
In a surprising move, the Europeans are warning against overburdening the agenda with environmental and social policies pushed by politicians, labor unions and civil society groups. Suggesting that these issues generate the greatest controversies between members and consequently tend to obstruct constructive work on the advancement of overarching goals, they ask for special forums to deal with these "emotionally" charged subjects.
The agenda for Doha is broad and complex. Attached to further steps of trade liberalization as the overall objective are strict reforms of trade distorting elements that specially hamper market access for the developing countries that constitute the majority of WTO membership.
Still, the list of various protectionist guises remains long. They range from quotas, farm subsidies, export refunds, price fixing, and fraud to food donations a specialty of the United States.
Consensus on major issues remains elusive. Rejecting suggestions that they phase out their subsidization of agriculture, Europe and Japan fight for continued domestic support. The decision is causing market distortions that in turn impede the integration of developing and Eastern European countries, such as Poland, into the global trading system. Shunning discussion of anti-dumping rules for the protection of weak industries the United States remains inflexible. Under fire is the protection of its ailing steel industry, although it has been proven that its difficulties are not based on foreign imports.
Furthermore, in order to gain access to state of the art medications and other patents, developing countries are challenging intellectual property rights and the high costs for the implementation of WTO agreements.
The costs for just three of them intellectual property, customs valuation and technical standards amount to a staggering $150 million.
China's accession raises other insecurities. Will the giant nation with its cheap labor ultimately attract more new investments than its competitive Asian neighbors? Will the trend toward bilateral and regional trade agreements seriously undercut the lofty position of the WTO?
Whatever the answers, the leadership of the WTO is on probation. Qatar is its last chance to demonstrate that global trade liberalization is the basis for economic growth and that the WTO is a global consensus builder among conflicting parties.

Viola Herms Drath is a member of the executive committee of the National Committee of American Foreign Policy.


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