Monthly Archives: September 2009

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The G20 meeting in Pittsburg this week resulted in agreement on several important principles, with the group agreeing in principle to establish guidelines for bankers’ pay, developing a timetable for reforming financial regulations, and establishing a new framework for economic growth. The G20 also agreed to transfer five percent of the shares in the International Monetary Fund and three percent of the shares in the World Bank to emerging countries. The organizations have long been criticized for voting structures which over-represent the developed world at the expense of the developing world.

In other news from the previous week:

1. There were several important developments in Iran this week. On Sunday, Iran test fired a short-range missile as part of ongoing war games in the country. The missile, a Shahab-3, has range sufficient to reach Israel and U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf. The launch comes just days after the United States announced it had discovered Iran possessed a second, secret uranium enrichment facility. France and the United Kingdom joined the United States in condemning Iran for misleading the international community. The discovery and announcement put pressure on Tehran, which maintains that the facility is used for peaceful purposes. The most recent announcement produced new signals from Russia, which had historically opposed sanctions against Iran. But after being briefed on the new facilities by the Obama administration, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev indicated that the Russian government may be willing to consider sanctions as a way of addressing the Iranian nuclear situation.

2. Germany is headed to the polls today, with most analysts calling the election too close to call and many speculating about what kind of coalition will take control of the world’s fourth largest economy. Although Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats have been leading throughout the campaign, her support has been slipping over the past week. With low turnout forecast, observers believe that the election could still be close. Further, a quirk in the German voting system could result in Merkel’s CDU winning a plurality of seats in the Bundestag despite winning a smaller percentage of the popular vote than her rivals. Her rival, the Social Democrats, have lagged in the polls throughout the campaign but managed a late-campaign surge. No matter what the margins, negotiations around a forming a new coalition in Germany will likely be the central focus of German politics in coming days.

3. Two car bombings believed to the work of the Taliban in Pakistan killed 27 people on Saturday. The attacks targeted Pakistan’s military and police forces, coming just days after the country’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, appealed to the G20 for assistance in fighting terrorism in Pakistan. The attacks demonstrate the resilience of the Taliban in Pakistan, which has been engaged in a protracted war with the national military. Last month, the Pakistani military killed Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban’s main leader in Pakistan, and earlier this year, the military killed more than 3,000 Taliban militants in operations in the Swat valley region. Despite these losses, however, the Taliban remains a central threat to the stability of the Pakistani regime. 

4. The government of Guinea is moving forward with its efforts to overturn some of the contracts signed with foreign companies under the military dictatorship of Lansana Conté, whose 24 year-rule ended with his death in December. The new government has already forced Rio Tinto to return a portion of its iron ore concessions and convinced the South African gold company, AngloGold Ashanti, to establish a $10 million fund to pay for environmental damages caused by their operations in the country. On Tuesday, the government ordered the Russian aluminum company Rusal to quit the country, claiming that it owed more than$750 million in taxes, royalties, and other duties owed since 2002. With a GDP per capita of $442, Guinea remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.

5. Deposed President Manuel Zelaya returned to Honduras last week, sneaking into the country and hiding in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Honduran security forces used water cannons and tear gas to dispurse crowds which had gathered outside the embassy in support of Zelaya. The Brazilian government has called on the international community to do more to support Zelaya’s return. Most of the international community has refused to recognize the new government and international assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has been suspended. Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Brazlian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said, “The international community demands that Mr Zelaya return immediately to the presidency of his country and must be alert to ensure the inviolability of Brazil’s diplomatic mission in the capital of Honduras.”

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

President Barack Obama has been busy on the diplomatic front this week. On Thursday, Obama announced his administration would cancel President George Bush’s proposed deployment of a missile defense system to Eastern Europe.  The missile defense system would have involved deployment of radar systems to Poland and the Czech Republic, a move which the Russian government insisted undermined its own national security and necessitated the expansion of its missile systems into Eastern Europe. Although the Russian government denied there was a quid-pro-quo agreement for the U.S. move, the Obama administration is hoping that the change in U.S. policy will help improve relations with Russia and lead to greater cooperation in other areas, including addressing the situation in Iran. However, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin responded to the announcement with a demand for greater U.S. concessions, including support for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, leading some analysts to speculate that the United States had miscalculated if it believed that its policy change in missile defense would result in a dramatic shift in Russian policy.

On Saturday, the White House announced that President Obama would hold a joint meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abba on Tuesday. Obama hopes that the meeting will restart peace talks, which reached an impasse last year. U.S. Special Envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell, has been engaged in shuttle diplomacy to address the stalled talks for more than a week, but Netanyahu remains under domestic political pressure not to make any concessions on the expansion of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, a key obstacle for the Palestinians.

In other news from the past week:

1. Last week’s meeting of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party raised questions about who will succeed Hu Jintao as the country’s leader. Most analysts had believed that Vice President Xi Jinping was Hu’s heir apparent, poised to take control of the party (and the country) after Hu steps down in 2012. When Xi was named to the Politburo in 2009, it was assumed that his elevation would follow the same path as Hu’s. Hu’s political power rests in his control of three offices: Secretary General of the Communist Party, President of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xi was expected to be nominated to succeed Hu as Chairman of the Central Military Commission on Friday, but no announcement from the Central Committee was forthcoming. Although some analysts believe that Xi’s appointment may be announced at a later date, others believe that Hu may be trying to retain control of key positions, including head of the military, after his 2012 retirement.

2. Efforts to resolve the political crisis in Afghanistan continued over the weekend, as closed-door meetings between foreign envoys, opposition leaders, and representatives of President Hamid Karzai discussed the future of the country. Although President Karzai was declared the winner of last month’s presidential elections by the Afghan elections commission, most observers believe that the vote was badly flawed, with the European Union suggesting that as many as 1 million of Karzai’s votes (which would represent more than ¼ of all votes cast in the election) should be viewed as suspect. Seeking to address the political standoff, the West is pushing for a power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan that would see Karzai claim the presidency but would considerably weaken the office, transferring significant political authority to appointed technocrats.

3. On Thursday, Islamic insurgents launched a suicide bomb attack against African Union peacekeeping forces in Somalia, in a move retaliating against a U.S. strike that killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nebhan, a suspected al-Qaeda leader. The African Union force, comprised primarily of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers, remains understaffed despite being responsible for addressing the threat posed by Islamic radicals intent on toppling the fragile government.

4. The government of Venezuela has been busy courting foreign assistance in developing its oil production facilities. The Venezulan government last week announced the discovery of a “very large” pocket of natural gas offshore, following a similar announcement by the government of Brazil. The Venezulean government announced that it had signed a $20 billion deal with the Russian government and a $16 billion with the Chinese government to expand oil production in the country by as much as 1.35 million barrels per day.

5. The campaign around the Irish ratification vote on the Treaty of Lisbon, scheduled for October 2, has entered full swing. Charlie McCreevy, Ireland’s European Commissioner, delivered a strongly-worded speech to the business community in Dublin suggesting that “international investors would take flight” from the country if it rejected the Treaty. The Treaty, viewed as vital to the continued growth and expansion of the European Union, was rejected by Irish voters in 2008, sparking a furious round of diplomacy to get the Treaty passed. But many observers are forecasting another no vote by Ireland in October could lead to the defeat of the Treaty in other Euroskeptic countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic.

Rethinking Development and Progress

Yesterday’s release of the Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress should provoke some interesting discussions on the question of progress. The committee, chaired by Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, was commissioned by the French government in 2008 to explore the adequacy of current measures of economic performance, particularly Gross Domestic Product, [glossary] to assess societal well-being.

In its final report, the committee acknowledges the limitations usually attributed to the use of GDP as a measure of progress. The committee argues, in short, that GDP does not value the right things; that it mistakes the means (economic growth) for the ends (social progress); that it may actually hide more than it illuminates; that it discounts the importance of future generations; that it does not include the health and sustainability of the environment; that it excludes unpaid labor, particularly in the home; and so on. (Many of the critiques are outlined in the report’s 18 page executive summary, which is well worth the read).

Writing in Tuesday’s Financial Times, Joseph Stiglitz argued that the use of GDP as a proxy for social wellbeing was not just a problem of what is or is not included, but that its use as proxy leads to problematic and misguided policy conclusions. According to Stiglitz,

What we measure affects what we do. If we have the wrong metrics, we will strive for the wrong things. In the quest to increase GDP, we may end up with a society in which most citizens have become worse off. We care, moreover, not just for how well off we are today but how well off we will be in the future. If we are borrowing unsustainably from this future, we should want to know.

Flawed statistics may also lead us to make incorrect inferences. In the years preceding the crisis, many in Europe, focusing on America’s higher rates of GDP growth, were drawn to the US model. Had they focused on metrics such as median income – providing a better picture of what is happening to most Americans – or made corrections for the increased indebtedness of households and the country as a whole, their enthusiasm might have been more muted.

No good accountant would ignore the depreciation of a company’s capital, but the standard GDP measure not only does that but also takes no account of resource depletion and environmental degradation. Our increased awareness of the scarcity value of environmental resources makes this lacuna especially troubling….

Too often, we confuse ends with means. One of the criticisms of our economies in the years prior to the crisis is that they did exactly that – a financial sector is a means to a more productive economy, not an end in itself. Even worse is to confuse an improvement in a measurement of well-being with an improvement in well-being itself. Our economy is supposed to increase our well-being. It, too, is not an end in itself. Hopefully, the work of our commission will have increased the impetus to align the metrics of well-being with what really contributes to quality of life – and, in so doing, help us direct our efforts at those things that really matter.

What is particularly interesting about the report is not so much its content—indeed, many of the criticisms it levels have been acknowledged for years—but its reception. The government of Bhutan has long called for a new measure of social progress based on happiness, a concept it labels Gross National Happiness. But most governments have so far refused to make any real changes. On Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the French statistics agency to begin incorporating the new measures of social wellbeing into accounts of the country’s overall performance. The acceptance of the new figures by other governments could make provide a framework to rethink the relationship between economic growth and social wellbeing, ensuring that we no longer confuse the means with the ends.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been an interesting week for the U.S. economy. According to figures released on Thursday, the U.S. trade deficit jumped by 16.3 percent to $32 billion in June, a figure sharply higher than the $27 billion that had been forecast. The dramatic increase in imports was fueled by the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which led to a dramatic increase in auto imports. Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported that the poverty rate had increased from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 13.2 percent in 2008. The poverty rate, which is defined as the number of people with an annual income of less than $11,200 (or less than $22,000 for a family of four), increased as a result of the global economic downturn. Home foreclosures also remain near their record high level. The troubled status of the U.S. economy led the Federal Reserve to indicate that it would be unlikely to raise interest rates in the first half of next year.

In news from outside the U.S. economy last week:

1. A trade dispute between the United States and China may be headed to the World Trade Organization for resolution. The United States last week imposed a new duty on tires manufactured in China, less than one week after it also imposed higher tariffs on Chinese steel piping. A spokesperson for the Chinese government condemned the move as protectionism, warning that “a chain reaction of trade protectionist measures that could slow the current pace of revival in the world economy.” Observers fear that the Chinese could respond with higher tariffs on U.S. agricultural and automotive exports, potentially sparking a trade war. But in an interesting editorial in the Financial Times, Clyde Prestowiz argued that the imposition of higher tariffs on Chinese exports to the Untied States could potentially help the push for free trade.

2. With the German election just a couple of weeks away, campaigning is in full force, and observers are already working through the numerous possible coalition arrangements. But in perhaps the most interesting development to date, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück last week called for the imposition of a new global tax on international financial transaction, the proceeds of which would be used to repay governments for the cost of fiscal stimulus packages and bank rescue operations. While not dismissing the idea out of hand, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the proposal “electioneering.” Steinbrück’s call follows a similar proposal made by the Chair of the British Financial Services Authority, Lord Turner, and could make for interesting discussions at the upcoming G20 summit.

3. The counting process in the Afghan elections continues to drag on. Although incumbent President Hamid Karzai now has enough votes to win the disputed presidential election outright, according to the most recent results of the Independent Election Commission, widespread irregularities have led to calls for partial recounts. On Sunday, the IEC agreed to move forward with discussions on a recount, but it stopped short of spelling out precisely what votes would or would not be included. The Electoral Complains Commission, a body established by the United Nations to observe elections and investigate allegations of fraud, noted “clear and convincing” evidence of fraud and vote rigging in southern provinces which went heavily towards Karzai.

4. The first high-level contact between the government of Zimbabwe and the west took place on Sunday, as the European Union’s Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Development and the Swedish Prime Minister (who also holds the European Union’s rotating presidency) met with representatives of the Zimbabwean government in Harare. The meeting is the first high-level contact since the European Union imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2002. While the European Union delegation remained noncommittal regarding the future direction of contact with the Zimbabwean government, stating only that “We’re entering a new phase. The [power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe] was an important step forward, but much more needs to be done. The key to re-engagement is the full implementation of the political agreement.” The status of the power sharing arrangement in Zimbabwe remains uncertain, as President Robert Mugabe and his rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, continue to struggle over the distribution of political authority within the country.

5. The government of Guatemala last week declared a “state of calamity” in response to the widespread hunger gripping the country. The World Food Programme estimated that the country would require an immediate shipment of 20 tons of food the worst affected areas in order to stave off starvation. Alvar Colom, Guatemala’s president, said that global climate change was affecting the El Niño, causing a massive drought in the northeastern portion of the country. But Colom was also critical of the high level of inequality in the country, observing that “There is food, but those who go hungry have no money to buy it.” Critics also note that poorly defined land rights, narcoviolence, and alleged corruption have also undermined food production. According to the World Food Programme, half of all children under five in Guatemala suffer from malnutrition.

And in a bonus story for this week:

6. After more than three months since the general election, the political situation in Lebanon remains cloudy. On Thursday, Saad Hariri, the leader of Lebanon’s pro-Western majority, resigned as prime minister designee, despite performing well-above expectations in June’s elections. According to Hariri, the country’s parliamentary minority blocked efforts to develop a coalition government, leaving the country in a period of political uncertainty.

Explaining Global Capital Flows

The World Economic Forum  [glossary] released its annual Global Competitiveness Report earlier this week. This year’s report is the first to take account of the impact of the global economic crisis. The report is intended to outline and measure those factors which facilitate economic growth and make national economies more competitive. The index is thus developed from twelve “pillars”: the strength and stability of political institutions, the extensiveness and effectiveness of infrastructure, macroeconomic stability, access to health and education, the efficiency of goods markets, the efficiency of labor markets, the sophistication of financial markets, technological readiness, the overall size of the domestic market, business sophistication, and innovation. A number of variables are then used to weight and rank each of the twelve pillars (readers who are interested in this aspect of the rankings can read more about the process in the appendix to the full report.

This year’s rankings saw some minor shifting in positions but few dramatic changes. Some countries (e.g., New Zealand and Taiwan) improved their rankings, and a number predictably declined. Iceland, for example, saw its overall ranking fall from 20th place to 26th place, largely as a result of the fallout from the banking crisis that undermined financial institutions in the country last year. The top ten performers were:

1. Switzerland (up from 2nd in 2008)
2. The United States (down from 1st)
3. Singapore (up from 5th)
4. Sweden (position unchanged)
5. Denmark (down from 3rd)
6. Finland (position unchanged)
7. Germany (position unchanged)
8. Japan (up from 9th)
9. Canada (up from 10th)
10. The Netherlands (down from 8th)

The bottom ten performers, which also saw few dramatic changes, were:

124. Paraguay (position unchanged from 2008)
125. Nepal (up from 126th)
126. East Timor (up from 129th)
127. Mauritania (up from 131st)
128. Burkina Faso (down from 127th)
129. Mozambique (up from 130th)
130. Mali (down from 117th)
131. Chad (up from 124th)
132. Zimbabwe (up from 133rd)
133. Burundi (down from 132nd)

The differences between the top and bottom performers are probably obvious. But the composition of the top ten performers also tells us something interesting about the nature of global economics. Although the vast majority of foreign direct investment [glossary] occurs between developed countries, the conventional wisdom, particularly among critics of multinational corporations, is that foreign direct investment tends to flow to the countries with the lowest tax rates, lowest wages, weakest environmental regulations, softest labor standards, and so on. But the countries that top the list of “most competitive” according to the World Economic Forum—hardly as bastion of anti-capitalist rhetoric—suggests something very different. Indeed, many of the countries in the top ten (e.g., Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany) have incredibly strict labor and environmental standards and among the highest corporate and individual tax rates in the world. Clearly, some other factors are compensating for the higher cost of doing business in these countries.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a weekend of high-profile political resignations in the United States and China. On Sunday Morning, President Barack Obama’s top environmental policy adviser, Van Jones, reigned after it became public he had signed a petition alleging U.S. government involvement in the September 11th attacks. Jones had also been a key player in the Color of Change group, which has spent considerable money trying to influence the tenor of the health care debate in the United States. His resignation comes at a poor time for the administration, which is simultaneously trying to salvage passage of health insurance reform legislation in the U.S. Congress, address the ongoing economic downturn, and beginning to consider efforts to address climate change and green jobs, Jones’ area of expertise.

On Saturday, the Chinese government fired the top party official in Urumqi, where ethnic unrest has been raging between ethnic Uighurs and the majority Han. Li Zhi, the Chinese Community Party Secretary for the city of Urumqi, was replaced by Zhu Jailun, who had previously served as the head of the regional law-and-order committee. Li’s firing has also raised speculation that regional party boss, Wang Lequan, may also be forced from office. In firing Li, the Chinese government is hoping to quell unrest and prevent another outbreak of violence like that of July, when almost 200 people were killed in ethnic violence.

And on Friday, the head of Google’s China operations, Lee Kai-Fu, resigned. Lee was responsible for the launch of Google.cn, Google’s Chinese-language search engine. But Google’s operations in China have been marred by tensions with the Chinese government and debates over the degree to which the company should allow the Chinese government to censor search results. Lee’s resignation came amid a new round of tensions, with some inside Google arguing that the company should reconsider its efforts to break into the Chinese market.

In other news from the last week:

1. The G20 concluded two days of meetings in London on Saturday with a preliminary outline for tougher regulations on financial institutions. While the final statement stopped short of imposing limits on financial bonuses, it would increase the size of capital reserves and require the development of “living wills” for banks, and require that banks retain a portion of loans they sell as asset-backed securities. But the G20 avoided dealing with some of the most controversial elements of banking reform, choosing instead to forward those issues to the Financial Stability Board, an institution comprised of central bank governors and treasury secretaries from around the world. 

2. The situation in Afghanistan continues to be marred by uncertainty. On Friday, a NATO airstrike against two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban killed an estimated 90 people, nearly all of whom were civilians, according to local village elders. The airstrike provoked an angry response among Afghans, and represented yet another setback for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. On Sunday it became apparent that the NATO airstrike was ordered by German commanders on the ground, a fact which will likely play an important role in upcoming German elections. The European Union issued a statement criticizing the airstrike on Saturday, one day before EU foreign ministers were scheduled to meet to consider efforts to improve stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, results from the Afghan election continue to trickle in. By Sunday, the Independent Electoral Commission had tabulated returns from just almost ¾ of country’s polling stations. So far, incumbent President Hamid Karzai leads his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah 48.6% to 31.7%. Under Afghan law, the winner must receive an absolute majority of votes cast, so if Karzai is unable to secure at least 50% of the vote, a runoff election would be held in October. But accusations of voting rigging continue to be raised, particularly by Abdullah, who contends that the vote was characterized by widespread fraud. The IEC announced that it had excluded an unknown number of votes from 447 polling stations in which suspicious returns had been found. But the scope of electoral fraud remains unknown.

3. The World Trade Organization issued its preliminary ruling in the U.S. dispute against EU assistance to aircraft manufacturer Airbus. Although the report is still confidential and the final report will not be issued for several months, the WTO panel found that some of the estimated €3 billion offered by the EU to Airbus was an unfair subsidy. Nevertheless, both sides are claiming victory. The WTO panel dismissed 70% of the U.S. claims against the EU and several of its member states, including France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom, which the U.S. had claimed offered as much as $15 billion in illegal loans since the 1970s. Although the United States is celebrating the decision, the European Union is withholding its formal reaction until its case against U.S. subsidies to Boeing is resolved. In a case filed at the WTO several years ago, the European Union accused the United States of offering more than $27 billion in illegal assistance in the form of tax breaks, research contracts, and defense spending. A ruling on that case is expected within the next few months. 

4. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is moving forward with a plan to expand settlement activity in the West Bank, offering approval for the construction of hundreds of new homes. The United States government was quick to condemn the move, asserting, according to White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs, “The U.S. does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop.” Netanyahu is under pressure from rightwing member of his coalition to remove restrictions on new settlements in the West Bank. But the status of settlements in the West Bank remains a key stumbling block in negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and Israel’s decision to increase settlement activity will likely undermine hopes for progress in rekindling stalled peace talks when President Obama’s Middle East Envoy, George Mitchell, visits Israel next week.

5. Last week’s presidential elections in the West African state of Gabon sparked violence after the ruling party candidate, Ali Ben Bongo, claimed victory. Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, had been Africa’s longest serving ruler, presiding over Gabon since 1967. Under his rule, Gabon’s oil and wood resources were used to expand his personal wealth.  At the time of his death, he was under investigation by the French government, which had identified 39 properties, 9 cars, and more than 70 bank accounts owned by the dictator in France alone. Sunday’s announcement that Ali Ben Bongo had won a plurality of the vote to win the presidency sparked unrest by the supporters of his two rivals, former interior minister Andre Mba Obame and opposition figure Pierre Mamboundou, each of whom received approximately 25 percent of the vote. Supporters of Obame and Mamboundou targeted the French embassy and facilities owned by foreign oil companies. But according to the French government, the election “took place in acceptable conditions.”

Of Cotton Subsidies and Essential Medicines

On Monday, the World Trade Organization [glossary] granted partial approval to Brazil’s proposal to impose countervailing sanctions against U.S. goods after the United States failed to comply with an earlier order to end illegal subsidies to cotton farmers. The ruling is the latest development in a trade dispute that stenches back several years. In 2002, Brazil failed suit against the United States, claiming that U.S. subsidies [glossary] to cotton farmers violated WTO rules and cost Brazil more than $3 billion per year in revenue lost due to distorted global prices. Brazil won its case in 2004, but the U.S. Congress has been slow to remove the subsidies.

Under WTO rules, Brazil would has the right to impose countervailing tariffs against U.S. exports to Brazil, up to the amount that the WTO certified Brazil is losing due to U.S. policy, in this case $3 billion. But for countries in the developing world, such an option is often unpalatable for two reasons. First, the imposition of tariffs could lead to higher consumer prices for goods, which can be politically unpopular. Second, the relative size of the markets means that Brazil’s loss of access to U.S. markets has a greater impact than the U.S.’s loss of access to Brazilian markets, even if the two losses are equal in absolute terms. Consequently, developing countries have made significantly less use of the WTO’s dispute resolution system and, even when victorious, have been more hesitant to use countervailing tariffs to enforce WTO decisions.

But Brazil’s proposal was an interesting one. After the United States continued to refuse to remove the trade distorting subsidies, it appealed to the WTO for an alternative recourse. Brazil proposed to impose the WTO penalty not by imposing tariffs on U.S. goods exported to Brazil, but by infringing patents on U.S. pharmaceutical products.

Brazil’s proposal is interesting in three respects. First, it makes the WTO’s dispute resolution system much more accessible to the countries of the global south. Enforcement, which has historically been difficult for countries in the global south, would be become more feasible. Second, it hits the United States in an area of much greater significance. The United States has long pushed for stronger intellectual property protections worldwide, campaigning against expanding the World Health Organization’s essential medicines list, for example. The political value of a ruling against U.S. pharmaceutical interests would be much higher as a result. Finally, and most importantly, such a ruling would link the agricultural subsidies dispute—which has been at the center of WTO talks in recent years—directly to the health and medicines debate. Farmers in the global south, whose lose an estimated $300 billion per year as a result of agricultural subsidies in the global north, could potentially benefit as a result of access to cheaper generic medicines manufactured in the global south.

So, on Monday, the WTO ruled. It denied Brazil’s request to bypass intellectual property protections, but confirmed that such a request could, in principle, be granted in the future. Indeed, last year, the WTO granted Antigua the right to do precisely that in its trade dispute over U.S. gambling laws. In the Brazilian case, the WTO decided that the current level of subsidies is not high enough to warrant such a radical step. A small victory for both sides, perhaps, but certainly a warning to the United States that intellectual property rights may be an effective tool to influence U.S. trade policy.