- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

The unceremonious breakdown of global trade talks in Cancun, Mexico, represents a failure of U.S. trade diplomacy. It’s also the latest evidence of a change in the free-trade ethos around the world, which surged in the decades after World War II, but has become increasingly questioned in the last several years. This skepticism was seen inside the confines of the official trade summit and out, and may have played a role in the round’s collapse.

European demands regarding the negotiating agenda technically led to the end of the talks. The European Union said that, if it were to negotiate reductions in its farm subsidies, poor countries had to address a host of investment and government procurement policies. African countries largely argued that Europe’s demands would make the agenda too complex and make near-term deadlines unreachable. Still, the divide between Europe and poor countries was evident long before the Cancun reunion, and America, as the leader of the free world and primary advocate of free trade, failed to induce an agreement.

The last trade round to end successfully was the Uruguay Round, which began in 1986 and was signed by 120 countries in April 1994. World Trade Organization meetings in November and December 1999 ended unsuccessfully, amid widespread and paralyzing protests, and unresolved differences on farm subsidies and labor standards. The current trade round was kicked off in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001. Numerous deadlines for the round have been missed, including a March 31 deadline for an outline agreement on farm-trade reform.

The United States and other negotiators are trying to put the best face on Cancun. The momentum was stuck somewhere in the sand, and given the status quo, it doesn’t appear to be on the verge of reviving.

While U.S. leadership fell short in Cancun, numerous factors were conspiring against success. For this reason, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is correct in stressing that bilateral and regional trade negotiations should now be accelerated. But U.S. negotiators should not close trade deals for the sake of it. America must stand to benefit from any new agreements.

Meanwhile, in possibly related phenomena, the Swedish people have just rejected adoption of the common European currency, the euro. China shrugged off a U.S. request that it free-float its currency. Large segments of the U.S. population are concerned about U.S. manufacturing jobs being moved abroad. And the Bush administration’s Commerce Department is about to spearhead a defense of American manufacturing jobs.

Advocates of free global trade, which includes this page, would be well advised to intellectually confront — in practical terms — its increasingly tenacious critics. Lofty repetitions of Adam Smith’s hopeful theories from two centuries ago are no longer winning the day in the streets of Seattle, or in the mahogany-wooded rooms of trade conferences.

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