President Bush subsumed much of his domestic-policy agenda in recent months to the project of renewing the World Trade Organization’s Doha Development Round.
The lame-duck president wanted to make one final contribution to the coffers of the multinational corporations that have always been his primary constituency.
But it didn’t work.
The movements that first flexed their muscles on the streets of Seattle in 1999 have trumped the most powerful man in the world once more. The WTO’s “mini-ministerial” in Geneva failed to reach the agreements that were necessary to begin a process that might have led to another radical rewrite of trade rules favoring the multinationals.
The Financial Times reports that, “The ‘Doha round’ of global trade talks lapsed back into limbo on Tuesday as a ministerial meeting to rescue the round collapsed after nine days of tense negotiations.”
A European Union official said of the talks: “It’s clearly not a success. But no one will want to say that it’s the end of the round.”
In other words, the Doha Round has again collapsed.
And with it has collapsed any prospect that Bush will be able to further define globalization downward into that race to the bottom that enriches investors but impoverishes workers, farmers, communities and sometimes whole countries.
That was bad news for Bush — and for those American political and economic insiders, including his predecessor Bill Clinton, who had long been more invested in advancing the WTO’s corporate model than approaches that might favor workers and farmers.
But critics of the administration’s free-trade agenda were celebrating.
“Thank God no deal was reached, because the proposal under consideration would have exacerbated the serious economic, food security and social problems now rocking numerous countries,” declared Lori Wallach, director Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
“The moldering corpse of the Doha WTO-expansion Round should have been buried years ago. Hopefully after this latest rejection of the Doha agenda, countries will move on to a new agenda focused on fixing the existing WTO rules.”
Wallach is looking beyond Bush.
“Now that WTO expansion has been again rejected at this ‘make or break’ meeting,” she said, “elected officials and those on the campaign trail in nations around the world – including U.S. presidential candidates – will be asked what they intend to do to replace the failed WTO model and its version of corporate globalization with something that benefits the majority of people worldwide.”
Wallach is right.
While Bush may have failed, there is no guarantee that the seemingly unending Doha Round is done.
Since the Seattle protests of 1999 stalled the WTO’s drive to open new sectors of the economy to the corporate free-trade model that serves Wall Street rather than Main Street, repeated attempts have been made to restart the process.
During almost of all of Bush’s presidency, the vehicle for these attempts was the Doha Development Round — so named because this ongoing attempt to lock in new trade rules, relating in particular to agriculture, commenced at Doha, Qatar, in late in 2001.
As he entered the lame-duck stage of his tenure, Bush desperately wanted to jump-start the Doha Round.
To do so, he held the federal Farm Bill hostage — threatening and ultimately vetoing a bill that devoted most of its spending to nutrition programs for low-income children and families because the White House feared the measure might narrow its options at the WTO negotiating table.
Determined to deliver once more for his administration’s corporate sponsors — who favor a global trade model that allows them to profit by playing one country against another, thus harming farmers, workers communities and the environment in the U.S. and in countries with which the U.S. trades — Bush pulled out all the stops.
While much of the media coverage will portray the fight as a struggle between sovereign nations, it was really a fight between advocates for the unrestricted free markets favored by Bush and his corporate allies and those who recognize that getting rid of all the rules leads to a form of chaos that makes investors very rich and leaves the poorest people in the world clawing for food.
Here’s how Carin Smaller, the head of the Geneva office of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, explained it:
This deal may have been hanging by a thread, but what snapped the thread was a major division between WTO members on how to achieve development. The U.S. argued that opening markets was the best way to achieve food security and to promote livelihoods. India and China, supported by the majority of developing country members, argued for a strong safeguard mechanism to protect food security and livelihoods in the event of major disruptions to agricultural markets.
This deal did not collapse over small technicalities. It was doomed to fail from the start. There is no political support for what is on the table: not from India or France or Argentina or South Africa or most of the WTO membership. Following the same WTO model is impossible now: governments are no longer willing to sacrifice other concerns strictly for the sake of trade. People are in the streets rioting over food and energy prices. The business world is in a state of shock over the financial crisis. These are the problems that governments have to focus on. And the Doha Round cannot help them.
People want global agreements to solve food insecurity, to get them out of poverty and to avoid the devastating effects of climate change. If trade can help these goals, it should be used. But the deal on the table was likely to make things worse.
Other global institutions are better equipped to solve these new challenges. Multilateralism is more important than ever, and it has to support a diversity of approaches to allow governments to realize full employment and sustainable development.
The question is no longer whether we need an alternative path to the Doha Round, but rather how to initiate it. It is time for strong political leadership from the South and North to push for a new model of trade.