Global Trade enters Crunch Time

Those who enjoy sports will be familiar with the rhythm of a season. In the period before the first games are played, every squad is filled with ambition and whispers about exciting new players. Then there are the initial games when those hopes are put to the test. Ultimately, one reaches the point in a season when the team must either win a big game or forget thoughts of post-season glory for at least another year.

The global trade agenda is entering an analogous critical stage.  There was a joyous pre-season with calls for new, improved, 21st century trade agreements. There were predictions of fabulous trophies for the successful – hundreds of billions of dollars in economic growth, countless new jobs!

The analogy to sports gets a little strained in one particular dimension, though. Following the progress of trade undertakings like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, or the WTO talks differs from a sports season in that one doesn’t actually get to watch the games. Instead, it’s the equivalent of being kept on the outside of the stadia where the games are played and just hearing the occasional rumor – “That player took a big hit!”; “Someone just made an amazing play!”; “I hear cheering! That has to be a good sign.”

The negotiations themselves are conducted in secrecy – a tradition that has become a sore point with complaints about the lack of transparency. Devotees are left to parse the emanating rumors or to wait for an established deadline, when the players who have been battling out of sight will all emerge beaming and victorious, with their helmets raised above their heads – or they will stagger out looking battered and dejected.

We are just now reaching one such key deadline. Next week, trade luminaries are scheduled to gather in Bali for a World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting. Cheering for a WTO agreement has recently been as fulfilling as backing the Cubs for the World Series. Yet lately there has been legitimate cause for hope. Even though the grand ambitions of the Doha talks, launched in 2001, were stymied years back, there was a recent move afoot to try for a less ambitious package, one that would demonstrate that the WTO was still relevant. Not only that, but there was a new manager. The Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo took over the WTO this fall from the Frenchman Pascal Lamy.

At The Chicago Council’s recent conference on the Frontiers of Economic Integration, former US Trade Representative Susan Schwab highlighted the importance of the Bali meeting, to be held Dec. 3-6. She said that the potential for a modest package was as important as anything that had gone on in global negotiations for the last two decades. She showered Azevêdo with praise, stating that if anyone could pull off the difficult feat of bringing 150 countries together, he had the skills to do it.

But the latest news coming out of the negotiating arena sounds grim. The negotiators involved failed to agree on a text for ministers to take up at the ministerial next week. Azevêdo was quoted as saying that members had “stopped making the tough political calls.”

In the sporting world, a setback like this would invariably be followed by predictions of redoubled effort and renewed hope next season. But the opportunities on the global trading scene are fewer and farther between. Instead of such bromides, Azevêdo warned of dire consequences from a Bali failure, both for the multilateral trading system and the global economy.

It is an inauspicious start for the critical phase of the global trade season. The TPP talks were intended to conclude by the end of this year. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has been saying he would like to get agreement on US trade negotiating authority by the end of this year as well, though past deadlines have already been missed. And the TTIP talks are meant to wrap up before the European Commission turns over in late 2014. Trade fans will be listening, increasingly nervous, for hopeful news. They will take little consolation from suggestions to just “wait for next year.”

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