Doha Development Agenda

A New Awakening? The WTO and Star Wars

Last week two beloved institutions attempted to hit the reset button.  Both institutions started strong, capturing a certain kind of magic that included hope and optimism.  Both appeared to have taken wrong turns in mid-life that left many feeling alienated or just uninterested.  The weekend represented a new “toss of the dice” to rekindle the agenda for the future. 

It is likely too soon to tell how successfully both institutions managed their reboot. The early measures showed one group dominating headlines and generating staggering sums of money.  The other barely rated a mention in leading newspapers and websites. 

The franchise hauling in revenue, of course, is Star Wars.  The launch of The New Awakening  generated more than $500 million in ticket sales in the opening weekend. 

By contrast, the World Trade Organization (WTO) held a ministerial last week in Nairobi, Kenya, that limped to a finish line after a delay.  The biggest story from the event was something that did not happen—the final ministerial statement did not reaffirm the importance of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA).

Early signs may ultimately be misleading, of course.  The new Star Wars picture may rapidly vanish from public view, particularly with a planned zillion more sequels in the pipeline.  The WTO might take advantage of opportunities created by quietly killing off a plot line that was advancing nowhere.

The parallels between the two were striking.  Without spoiling too much of the plot, consider:

The latest Star Wars movie was not so much a refresh of the original than a remake of the 1977 movie (with a dash of the next two films thrown in).  It begins with a teenager wearing what appears to be linen struggling to eke out an existence on a barren desert planet.  Into this situation, insert one squat, round droid that becomes attached to our teenage hero. 

This droid is—wait for it—carrying a vital set of plans that are critical to the survival of a ragtag resistance force.  But the evil Dark Side knows that the droid is present and destroys the village.  Our teenage hero shows off an impressive range of skills, narrowly escapes with the droid and the plans, and is thrust into a galactic battle to save humanity. 

How does our hero escape the village carnage?  In a beloved spacecraft that, despite the passage of time and a complete lack of use for decades, still manages to leap off the ground and outrun all the existing aircraft (which are, strangely, also using exactly the same models and technology as before).   It flies to planets that are either all green and lush with trees or all snowy white and angular. 

Without giving away the limited plot of the movie, the adversary is using EXACTLY the same primary weapon that our ragtag group of heroes have faced twice before with eerily similar weaknesses.

The WTO has been stuck in a similar time warp.  The Doha Development Agenda (DDA) was first outlined decades ago.  It was launched with much fanfare in November 2001 in Doha, Qatar. 

The DDA represented a new hope.  Following the success of the Uruguay Round negotiations, the new WTO institution had a mandate to pursue trade agreements that went beyond tariff cutting for goods.  The very methods used to reach agreement would be new, with regular consultations that included every member. 

But as years turned to decades, the DDA remained stagnant.  The negotiating methods proved difficult to manage as the number of members soared to over 160 and the diversity of membership increased. 

The agenda got stuck in amber.  Basically, every time the organization might have tried something new, it got sent back to a desert planet to scavenge for spare parts.  Some members argued that nothing new could be attempted without first fixing old issues.  Given that every member has an effective veto over the actions of the army, the entire machinery ground to a halt. 

Technology, time and attention moved on while officials argued over tariff cutting formulas for agricultural goods.  This is not to argue that tariff cuts or agriculture are not important, but it is a bit like relying on a 40 year old spacecraft to outrun new competitors. 

The battle lines in the WTO got ever more complicated, as members organized themselves in various and proliferating groupings.  Perhaps the WTO could have used a droid with a map, or even a fragment of a map, to keep the effort on track.  Unlike Star Wars, WTO members cannot count on a villain wearing helpful black cape and face mask made from a trashcan.  Members probably could not agree on what adversary they are even trying to fight. 

Since the Dark Side in Star Wars seems unable to create a new approach to weapons or spacecraft or immense battle weapons, the rebel alliance refought old battles.  Something similar happened in the WTO as officials spent endless hours circling exactly the same territory over and over again.  They could not advance any other element of the agenda until tariff discussions for agriculture were completely addressed. 

The WTO’s version of victory last week was not a satisfying massive implosion of a planet with an enveloping roar, but was instead the accession of Afghanistan and Liberia to the grouping.   A subset of 53 members reached agreement on an extension of product coverage for information technology products (ITA2). 

Also, members agreed to limit the use of export subsidies and credits for agriculture in non-legally binding ways.  This sounds like a major accomplishment, but actually likely applies to very few.  Members can still subsidize agriculture (and lots of other things), just not directly for the purpose of exporting agricultural goods to other WTO members.  

The most relevant paragraph and meaningful element of the final declaration from Nairobi reads:

30. We recognize that many Members reaffirm the Doha Development Agenda, and the Declarations and Decisions adopted at Doha and at the Ministerial Conferences held since then, and reaffirm their full commitment to conclude the DDA on that basis. Other Members do not reaffirm the Doha mandates, as they believe new approaches are necessary to achieve meaningful outcomes in multilateral negotiations. Members have different views on how to address the negotiations. We acknowledge the strong legal structure of this Organization.

This is not exactly a light saber thrust through the heart, but in diplomatic terms it shows that change is finally coming to the WTO.  What shape it will take is not yet clear, particularly as decisions still have to be taken by consensus.

If this were Hollywood, the WTO just set itself up for the next movie—will our rebel alliance manage to achieve compromise in the future?  Will the battle be rejoined a fourth time with the same type of evil master weapon?  Will the ragtag alliance simply fold, content to sit back and hear legal disputes based on violations of rules written back when Luke Skywalker was a younger man?  Will our heroes be outgunned by a newly organized Dark Side with cutting-edge technology? Or will the parties find new battlefields entirely?  Stay tuned.

***Talking Trade is a blog post written by Dr. Deborah Elms, Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***

Making 2015 a “Year to Remember” at the WTO?

At the last General Council meeting of the year in December, the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Director General reminded ambassadors that the institution had many deliverables to achieve in 2015.  Roberto Azevedo said, “We have important work to do and real deadlines to meet.  So let’s make sure it’s a year to remember.”

With six months remaining, it is a good time to take stock of how far the WTO has come in meeting its own objectives for 2015.  Although miracles can happen, it is already looking increasingly likely that the multilateral trading system will stumble badly on its way to the finish line this year. 

One deadline to be met was the ratification of the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) signed with such fanfare in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2013.  Originally, countries agreed on a deadline of July 31, 2015. 

But members recognized the difficulties in meeting this objective and moved the goalposts even before Azevedo gave his speech in December.  In fact, WTO members ensured that they would never miss the deadline for TFA ratification by removing the finish line entirely.   Now there is no date by which members must submit necessary paperwork to proceed with implementation.

This may have been a good way to deal with a deeply troubling situation.  For the agreement to come into force, 2/3 of the WTO membership must agree.  However, as the original deadline approaches, only 8 countries (Hong Kong, Singapore, United States, Mauritius, Malaysia, Japan, Australia and Botswana) of the necessary 108 have actually submitted their paperwork. 

But now the WTO remains on track for ratification of TFA—whenever sufficient members opt to participate, the agreement will move forward.  No more irritating deadlines to meet or miss.

A second deadline is looming for the organization at the end of this month.  By the end of July, a work plan is due.  This plan is meant to lay out the path forward for the institution to address elements of the Doha Agenda.  It will not get done on time.

This is, quite frankly, almost hard to write.  Members are going to miss a deadline to create a work plan to discuss a path forward on an agenda that was first proposed more than 15 years ago and was formally launched in 2001. 

Officials began discussions again on this workplan more than six months ago.  The comments of Ambassador John Adank are instructive.  At the beginning of the process, he said, “I think that for those who had forgotten the issues, and the positions of each other on those issues, that the meeting served a useful purpose, at least to bring us back to where we were, although I don’t think it’s really given us a clear indication of where we will go—that will need significant change from where we are now.”

Some members are likely to argue that the workplan deadline is quite fungible.  In the past, the WTO routinely missed its own targets for completing workplans and agendas needed for big meetings or ministerials.  Officials will likely argue now that they can keep adjusting the workplan “deadline” until right up to late November for the upcoming ministerial in December.

But anyone who works in a large company will recognize the problems with this argument—big meetings with staff flying in from around the world usually require more than just an agenda.  For a meaningful outcome, everyone needs to start early on preparing background materials, figuring out the context for discussions, matching up likely outcomes with their specific regional needs and requirements, identifying gaps that must be addressed, and so forth. 

The groundwork must also be laid for compromises and for agreements across the myriad groups with issues of concern.   This takes time and, in spite of more than a decade now spent on negotiations, if the agenda is going to be significantly revised, reaching consensus on a new or altered set of outcomes will need more than a few days or weeks.

Another “deadline” of sorts that will be missed are the revisions of the Information Technology Agreement (ITA2).  Unlike most WTO commitments, the ITA applies to only a subset of members.  The original ITA entered into force in 1997.  It lowered tariffs on listed technologies and telecommunications products. 

But this agreement also contained a fatal flaw.  The list of covered products was fixed and has not been changed in the years since it was first negotiated.  Particularly given the rapid pace of change in IT, a frozen list means that record players are included but not new items like mobile phones. 

Repeated attempts to negotiate an ITA2 have foundered.  Officials thought they had reached an acceptable compromise late last year when the United States and China finally worked out their differences.  However, the deal jammed again when South Korea, Taiwan and China were unable to agree on coverage for flat screen panels. 

Despite hopes that ITA2 would be finally completed in early 2015, no breakthrough has been announced.

Any institution with more than 160 members and a widely diverse membership will struggle to meet its objectives.  But the pattern of missed deadlines should be of increasing concern. 

One deadline that cannot be missed is the commitment to hold a ministerial in Nairobi, in December 2015.   The absence of a workplan to guide negotiations and a series of missed deadlines do not inspire confidence in a successful outcome.  

Let us hope that ministers do not gather in Kenya and pledge to make “2016 a year to remember.”

***Talking Trade is a blog post written by Deborah Elms, Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***

Restoring the Multilateral Trading System?

BEIJING—I have not participated in a workshop on the multilateral trading system in a while.  But this week, I was invited to Beijing by UIBE, the South African Institute of International Affairs, and the Cordell Hull Institute to discuss the restoration of a multilateral trade cooperation dialogue. 

The discussion this morning has focused on particularly on how to conclude the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) at the World Trade Organization (WTO).  While I knew there was a large gap between the multilateral system and what I would call  “the real world,” I was struck all over again by how wide it appears to have grown.

The workshop opened with some remarks by one of the best WTO trade ambassadors I have ever met—savvy, knowledgeable, and experienced.  He discussed what was on the table for discussions in Geneva and urged WTO members to work together to be as cooperative and accommodating as possible to get the round done. 

We’ve been meeting with 4-10 companies a week since we set up the Asian Trade Centre last August.  In all those meetings, I could not recall a single company mentioning the WTO.  Not once.  These are meetings with some of the biggest companies in the world as well as some of the smallest.  All are active in Asia, but are otherwise engaged in a wide range of economic sectors from manufacturing to services to investment and finance.  They are nearly all oriented outward, in that they either already trade across borders or would like to do so.

No one has raised the WTO. 

But it actually gets even worse.  I am similarly struggling to think about any of the companies mentioning any of the issues under discussion or negotiation in Geneva.  Of course, companies that face tariff barriers, for example, will perhaps discuss the lowering of these obstacles.  But they do not look to Geneva to solve these problems.  Partly this is because they have given up after waiting so long for an outcome from talks that started in earnest in 2001 building on an agenda started even longer ago.  This problem has been compounded by the fact that many companies think that the tariff cuts they might want are unlikely to come from the resolution of the DDA. 

Many of the issues that companies raise repeatedly as major challenges, like incompatible standards, labeling barriers, complex domestic rulings at borders, opening of services markets, inadequate protections of investments, and repeated backsliding from existing commitments in some markets, are not on the table at all.  They were either not on the agenda in the DDA or, in some cases like competition policy, were tossed off the list early on.

Again, I would argue that the situation gets worse.  It is not just that these issues are not on the agenda, but there seems to be no desire to put most of these items on a future agenda either.  For example, many of the least developed countries (LDC) often argue that the WTO agenda has to include provisions to help the poorest members of the system compete.  Most of the issues mentioned in my company discussions are likely to be viewed as “too hard” or “too complex” or “too biased in favor of developed economies” and would not be helpful to LDC members.  Thus the very issues that may be necessary to get companies reengaged are likely to be kept off the agenda in the future. 

It’s also not only the least developed members that may make these sorts of arguments.  There are all sorts of members in the “developing” country basket who would and will make similar complaints.  Recall that, unlike the LDC classifications that are set by the United Nations, WTO members are allowed to self-certify as developed.  This means that countries like Singapore and South Korea remain, officially, developing country members in Geneva. 

Of the 161 members of the WTO, the vast majority are now classified as developing.  Nearly a quarter of the membership are LDCs.  Clearly, their needs and interests are important and need to be considered in setting the rules and outcomes of the WTO.

My own bias (or at least one of them) is that the global trading system ought to be beneficial for trade.  This means that it is critical that company interests be placed front and center in creating a trade agenda.  Other issues certainly matter and do play a role, but ignoring the needs of business in this century is not a recipe for multilateral success either.  How can multilateral trade agreements better provide the platform for businesses of all sizes in all members to engage in global trade arrangements?

Over the years, lots of very smart and clever people have suggested methods to bridge gaps in the system.  These range from restarting dialogue in Geneva in a non-negotiating setting to tweaking the rules for decisionmaking to adjusting the agenda by grouping issue areas differently in the hopes of overcoming entrenched divisions between members.

Yet, listening to the range of interests just around this table in Beijing presented by some of the best global trade policy experts, I can clearly see why governments that have options are increasingly just leaving the multilateral system behind.  It does not appear to be possible to move on and address the issues that matter in the real world until the past agenda is completed.  But this past agenda is largely irrelevant to many key potential stakeholders.  Thus, if I were a government official, I am not sure why I would invest important political capital in pushing through a potential deal in Geneva that my own stakeholders are largely not interested in supporting.

This has been, frankly, a very depressing morning.  I think I can make a powerful argument for why trade cooperation at the multilateral level is best.  The WTO rules serve as the foundation for every bilateral and regional trade deal.  Transparency and non-discrimination remain key fundamental principles.  Global trade rules benefit the largest number of people in the greatest set of members.  It helps companies—especially the smaller firms that struggle to make sense of a complex, overlapping world of smaller bilateral and regional deals.  Global trade can serve as a driver for economic growth. 

The race to regional agreements will leave many potential participants on the sidelines.  As I frequently say, not every country is an attractive dance partner when searching for new agreement partners.  Thus, the stampede to smaller deals will leave some countries completely outside the dance hall. 

One participant just mentioned the worries of his country for trade and investment diversion as a result of regional and bilateral trade agreements.  I think this is a likely outcome, particularly from some of the deeper, more meaningful megaregional agreements.  To cite just one example, the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in textiles is likely to change trade patterns around textiles and apparel into the future.  Countries that are not members of the TPP will struggle to keep market share in major economies like the United States because their exports will not get the same benefits (reduced tariffs and other issues) as competitor, TPP-enhanced firms will receive.

So where do we go from here?  It is not clear at all, other than being depressing.  The situation is currently impossible—many members are refusing to budge on anything until the old agenda is addressed while other members have zero interest in the old agenda.  There is no way to satisfy these two positions.  As a negotiator, I can only reach agreement when there are some (even if quite small) overlapping interests.  I don’t see these overlapping interests taking place at the moment.

Perhaps, if I might make my own contributions to a growing set of reform proposals, it is that the business community must reengage with the multilateral system.  In this case, it is necessary to explain to officials in Geneva what are the issues that matter to large and small firms and why these concerns must be discussed in the WTO as the most suitable venue.  Companies have increasingly just left the building and it appears to me that their absence alone is not making the point.  No government officials are going to be ambitious if they do not think they have sufficient input and endorsement from businesses.  To get a trade agenda underway that matters to companies operating globally now, firms need to clearly and regularly articulate what ought to be on this agenda.

If this group of experts meeting in Beijing comes up with some outstanding, creative ideas of what else ought to be tried, I’ll write another post about it next week. 

***Talking Trade is a blog post by Deborah Elms, Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***

The World Trade Organization, or What Happens When a Tree Falls and No One Cares

Update:  As if to prove my point, check out this headline in today's Inside US Trade:

  • WTO Efforts On Doha Work Program Face Obstacles, May Miss July Deadline

    World Trade Organization members are facing such fundamental differences and are at such a preliminary stage in their efforts to devise a work program to conclude the stalled Doha round that Geneva sources expressed doubts they can meet their July 31 deadline for establishing a detailed blueprint for potential negotiations.


There is an ongoing philosophical debate about what happens when a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it.  Does the falling tree make a sound?

In Geneva, the “tree” of the World Trade Organization (WTO) might be in danger of falling.  It might have already fallen.  Either way, very few seem to even care. 

It’s a bit like watching a slow-motion disaster—a flood or a prolonged monsoon rain period that gradually overwhelms the landscape.  In the case of the WTO, the consequences of drowning will be felt (like in many disasters) by the poorest and least able to cope members of the global community.

In working with British trade officials over the past two days, I have explained how the global framework for dealing with trade in services was built in the GATT/WTO.  In the late 1980s, officials struggled with developing new rules to bring some structure, order and predictability to international trade in services.  This was a very tricky task, since services cannot be easily seen or measured.

Yet clearly, some governments were putting up barriers both large and small that blocked the trade of services like engineering, architecture, medicine, education, travel and tourism, construction and so forth.  At the time—in pre-internet days especially—it was not entirely obvious how some services could be delivered across borders easily. 

Officials had to devise systems to classify the mechanisms for providing services and then go on to discuss ways of opening up markets in services sectors and providing fair treatment of foreign service providers.  These discussions required creativity and boldness and a willingness to try something different.

However, since it was all so new, as the last big round of trade negotiations finished, most governments were reluctant to commit very much in the new General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).  As a result, from the moment the Uruguay Round ended, services were placed on the “built-in agenda” for further discussions the next time the new World Trade Organization met for trade liberalization negotiations.

It’s been 20 years and we are still waiting for the next round of global services talks. 

The rest of the WTO agenda remains equally stalled.  No new rules have been written for vast swaths of trade at the multilateral level in more than two decades.  The Doha Development Agenda (DDA), launched with great fanfare in November 2001, has gone almost nowhere.

But it actually gets worse than that.  The WTO General Council met in November 2014 and managed to achieve the following (after a nearly 20-year record of failure, missed deadlines, incomplete negotiations, and mounting costs):   

Decides as follows:

  — Work shall resume immediately and all Members shall engage constructively on the implementation of all the Bali Ministerial Decisions in the relevant WTO bodies, including on the preparation of a clearly defined work program on the remaining DDA issues as mandated in paragraph 1.11 of the Bali Declaration.

  — As per paragraph 1.11 of the Bali Declaration, Members agree that the issues of the Bali package where legally binding outcomes could not be achieved, including LDC issues, shall be pursued on priority.

  — The deadline for agreeing on the work program mandated in the Bali Declaration shall be July 2015.

Seriously?  The tree has fallen and cannot get up.

Let’s examine the evidence here.  “Work shall resume immediately and all Members shall engage constructively on the issues.”  Keep in mind that 160 governments are members of the WTO and many keep whole embassies full of staff members permanently based in Geneva to work on trade issues.  These people have, surely, been working on something for the past 13 years.  (If not, taxpayers really ought to monitor this much more closely.)

The WTO ambassadors agreed to create a program on the DDA.  This is a trade agenda first prepared more than a decade ago.  Business is utterly uninterested in rules of the trading game that might have been appropriate at the time but may be completely useless now.  What good is it to discuss the rules and market opening for cassette tape players in a world increasingly ruled by smart phones?

Ambassadors said that they need a “clearly defined” work program to get to an outcome that hardly anyone cares about.  This must surely be the very definition of futility. 

The second bullet point (which is written so poorly that it does not make sense on its own terms) says that officials need to try to get to an agreement in areas where they were unable to get to an agreement.  I suppose it could have been worse—it could have said something like, “We agree that we have agreed on a few items.”

Finally, it finishes with the statement that the work program will be decided in another 8 months.  This is not the same thing as saying that we will finally finish the deal in a few months.  This simply says that they might, possibly, given enough good will and constructive engagement, achieve a plan to discuss the things that they have been discussing for more than a decade.  

Now, there are no doubt individuals who will fiercely argue that the WTO did or has, in fact, accomplished a bit more than I have suggested.  The General Council has agreed on, for example, a different work plan to implement a deal that they all agreed they would implement on trade facilitation more than a year ago (the Bali declaration from December 2013).  There was a little bit on food stockpiling and cotton.

But I think my broader point remains.  Take a look at what was finally agreed on issues of importance to the Least Development Country (LDC) members:

Decides as follows:

1.1. With a view to facilitating market access for LDCs provided under non-reciprocal preferential trade arrangements for LDCs, Members should endeavour to develop or build on their individual rules of origin arrangements applicable to imports from LDCs in accordance with the following guidelines. These guidelines do not stipulate a single set of rules of origin criteria. Rather, they provide elements upon which Members may wish to draw for preferential rules of origin applicable to imports from LDCs under such arrangements.

That’s it.  To help the very poorest members of the community, members ought to endeavor to use some guidelines.  Not necessarily—mind you—guidelines actually developed by the very body that claims to create rules for global trade.  But, rather, to use some guidelines as a starting point in crafting potentially individualized rules that apply only to each member. 

There are so many tragedies here it’s hard to know where to start.  However, when years and years of negotiations yield only the weakest set of guidelines for one part of one element of a deal aimed at the least developed members of a community, it is very hard to face the situation in multilateral trade with any sort of optimism.  Whether or not this particular tree made a sound when it crashed seems to make very little difference. 

Future posts will discuss some of the potential solutions (and perhaps allow my friends at the WTO to continue to talk to me in the future).  Stay tuned!