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After Doha: Why the Negotiations are Doomed and What We Should do About It

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It is time for the international community to recognize that the Doha Round is doomed. Started in November 2001 as the ninth multilateral trade negotiation under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and its successor, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the talks have sought to promote economic growth and improve living standards across the globe--especially in developing countries--through trade liberalization and reforms. Yet after countless attempts to achieve a resolution, the talks have dragged on into their tenth year, with no end in sight.

To be sure, world leaders, negotiators, and commentators have expressed their unanimous support for a successful outcome--the "balanced" and "ambitious" agreement called for by so many summit statements. But concluding a trade agreement is like pole-vaulting. Everything must come together at once--after the extensive preparation and the building of momentum, there is that one giant leap--with the hope that the entire body will sail over the bar. Most trade agreements survive several failed attempts before success is achieved. But the Doha Round keeps crashing into the bar.

To a significant degree, Doha's failure can be traced to its outdated structure and negotiating dynamic: even the best of intentions are stymied when every negotiator's concessions are more clear than their potential gains and when the bipolar division between developed and developing countries shortchanges most in the developing world. More fundamental, however, has been the Doha Round's failure to address the central question facing international economic governance today: What are the relative roles and responsibilities of advanced (or developed), emerging, and developing countries? (Although there are no universally recognized definitions, advanced countries are generally mature economies that have industrialized and attained high levels of per capita income. Emerging-market economies are those that are undergoing rapid rates of growth and industrialization but have not yet reached developed status. Developing countries have not yet experienced these transitions.) World leaders are frustrated that their mandates to negotiators have failed to translate into a successful conclusion to the round. Meanwhile, the negotiators either cannot or prefer not to admit that Doha's flaws will prevent them from closing the deal, let alone ever addressing that fundamental question.

What this means, simply, is that it is time to give up on trying to "save" Doha. For years, the threat of being blamed for the Doha Round's collapse has made it too risky for governments to suggest that the talks are dead. Negotiators obsess over how to keep the dead cat from landing on their doorstep. But the pretense that the deal will somehow come together at long last is now a greater threat to the multilateral trading system than acknowledging the truth: prolonging the Doha process will only jeopardize the multilateral trading system and threaten future prospects for WTO-led liberalization and reform.

To avoid that outcome, negotiators should salvage any partial agreements they can from the round and walk away from the rest. World leaders and trade policymakers should then immediately redirect all the energy, initiative, and frequent-flier miles devoted to Doha into launching new multilateral initiatives to restore trust in the WTO and preserve it as a dynamic venue for both improving and enforcing the rules governing international trade.