Dani Rodrick has an interesting discussion of the World Trade Organization and the Doha Round at his blog this week. Citing comments by Martin Wolf, Rodrick argues that the Doha Round of trade talks is dead, and that continuing to push the round is doing more harm than good. According to Wolf,
Doha was essentially a political response to 9/11. I supported it then because it indicated the global will to co-operate and sustain globalisation. Its chance of completion was in the first few years. Once the political reasons weakened, as they did, after Iraq and then the obvious fact that globalisation was ongoing, the will to complete this round disappeared. Today, no top-level politician would now use his or her desperately limited political capital to complete this round, which they see (rightly) as a low-level priority. After all, are we really living in an era of collapsing trade? Is protectionism rampant? Given the shocks of the last few years, it is almost astonishingly absent.
Then people will say that the WTO will collapse if we don’t keep on doing rounds. I think that’s absurd. Do we think the legal system will collapse if we don’t go on writing more laws? At some point, we were bound to get to the point when a round failed. At some point, we would have to declare an end to rounds. Before 9/11, I thought we were already there. After 9/11, I thought it made sense to have one more go. I was wrong. Doha is weakening the WTO, not strengthening it.
So what now? Make the WTO work in a world without rounds, that’s what. Move on. This is over.
I think that both Rodrick and Wolf are correct in their assessment of the future of Doha. Doha is dead. It’s basically been so since the round was launched in 2001. The inability of contracting parties to arrive at agreement on a number of issues, most notably liberalization of agricultural trade, meant that it was unlike to ever be successful.
But the importance of Doha went far beyond the continued liberalization of international trade. Doha was both the first round launched under the auspices of the World Trade Organization as well as the first concerted effort to address the intersection of trade and development. Doha undertook an ambitious agenda—based in part on the standoff in Seattle in 1999—to address a series of issues with key implications for development in the global south: essential medicines, agricultural trade, trade in services, and special and differential treatment, among others. The collapse of Doha signals to the developing world—as if a new signal were necessary—that the rules of the international trade system are stacked against them, that their interests are not taken seriously in international talks. The WTO can certainly continue in its current form. But the cynicism of the developing countries will rightly be directed towards the organization.