Trade is Much Bigger Than the Doha Round

There have been whispers of late regarding prospects for a last minute resurrection of the WTO’s Doha Round of multilateral trade talks.  My colleague Sallie James does a great job discussing those prospects with polite skepticism in a recent Cato podcast.  Let me be a little more direct: Doha’s dead, yadda yadda yadda, now let’s move on!

Ok, that sounds a bit cavalier.  So please allow me to clarify.  To be more precise, Doha is not dead permanently; it is in a cryogenic state, available for resuscitation under different circumstances. 

Atop the many reasons to conclude that Doha’s time has passed for now is this: the Bush administration has neither the will nor the resources to engage in the type of horse trading necessary to produce an agreement that would be simultaneously acceptable to our trade partners and our Congress (and worthy of the negotiating efforts expended thus far).  As with every other policy initiative “championed” by the Bush administration (and trade was never really a priority), trade’s oxygen has been consumed by the Iraq inferno.

Judging from the commentaries I’ve read and conversations I’ve had, I am less inclined than most to view Doha’s deep freeze as some colossal economic setback.  Certainly it is a(nother) foreign policy setback for the United States, which will undoubtedly be accused of perpetuating poverty and misery the world over.  To the extent there is some small truth in that (some U.S. trade policies have acute, adverse impacts on people in developing countries), Doha’s failure carries real costs.  But by and large, there is no reason to assume that international trade and foreign investment will suddenly slow or reverse course.  In fact, trade and investment are likely to continue to grow handsomely and the world economy will continue to expand, as more and more people from more and more countries partake of the global economy.  And furthermore, I suspect that some, if not many, of the reforms and liberalizations proposed in the Doha Round will be adopted, ultimately, without need of agreement, by countries (including the U.S.) that recognize it is in their interest to reform regardless of what other countries do. 

What concerns me more than the failure to reach a new accord is the potential for marginalization of the old agreements and institutions.  The agreements that culminated in the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 and the quiet success of its dispute settlement system (which has “handled” 357 disputes) have a lot to do with trade’s contribution to world economic growth.  Long-standing rules and familiar processes have helped reduce and eliminate some of the uncertainties (and therefore, risks and costs) traditionally associated with trading and investing with foreigners.  If member countries were to begin questioning the efficacy of the system or the wisdom or propriety of its adjudication process when it becomes politically convenient to do so, calls to skirt the rules and ignore the verdicts might not be too far behind.  And that behavior could prove contagious, leading to new uncertainties, greater risks and costs, and ultimately, degradation and a potential collapse of the rules-based trading system.

That scenario, should it unfold, is a long way off.  But the seeds of discontent are sowing.  U.S. policymakers have from time-to-time expressed skepticism about WTO rulings.  That skepticism is memorialized in Section 2101(b)(3) of the legislation that gave President Bush trade promotion authority in 2002:

Support for continued trade expansion requires that dispute settlement procedures under international trade agreements not add to or diminish the rights and obligations provided in such agreements. Therefore-

(A) the recent pattern of decisions by dispute settlement panels of the WTO and the Appellate Body to impose obligations and restrictions on the use of antidumping, countervailing, and safeguard measures by WTO members under the Antidumping Agreement, the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, and the Agreement on Safeguards has raised concerns; and

(B) the Congress is concerned that dispute settlement panels of the WTO and the Appellate Body appropriately apply the standard of review contained in Article 17.6 of the Antidumping Agreement, to provide deference to a permissible interpretation by a WTO member of provisions of that Agreement, and to the evaluation by a WTO member of the facts where that evaluation is unbiased and objective and the establishment of the facts is proper.

Reactions in Congress to WTO dispute settlement decisions have been most acerbic when the subject has concerned U.S. application of its trade remedy laws.  As I reported last month, the WTO Appellate Body’s indictment of the U.S. antidumping calculation practice known as zeroing led to a rare change in practice at the Commerce Department.  However, some in Congress were not very pleased, suggesting the administrative actions circumvented congressional authority.Just last week, the Appellate Body ruled again on the issue of zeroing in the United States, but this time the ruling was even more encompassing, forbidding the practice under almost every conceivable comparison methodology.  Compliance with the ruling would be a landmark achievement in the realm of antidumping reform because the practice of zeroing is the single greatest systemic inflator of dumping margins.  And therein lies the problem.  In terms of the practical effect on the bottom line, banning zeroing entirely is akin to fairly ambitious antidumping reform, which Congresses past (and presumably present) have opposed.

When Congress granted President Bush trade promotion authority in 2002, it did so with strings attached. 

(14) TRADE REMEDY LAWS.-The principal negotiating objectives of the United States with respect to trade remedy laws are-

(A) to preserve the ability of the United States to enforce rigorously its trade laws, including the antidumping, countervailing duty, and safeguard laws, and avoid agreements that lessen the effectiveness of domestic and international disciplines on unfair trade, especially dumping and subsidies, or that lessen the effectiveness of domestic and international safeguard provisions, in order to ensure that United States workers, agricultural producers, and firms can compete fully on fair terms and enjoy the benefits of reciprocal trade concessions; and

(B) to address and remedy market distortions that lead to dumping and subsidization, including overcapacity, cartelization, and market-access barriers.

To Congress, trade remedy laws are not the problem.  Dumping and subsidization are.  And the latest Appellate Body decision against zeroing makes it that much harder to combat “unfair” trade.

Accordingly, Congress is highly unlikely to go quietly into the night after the WTO’s latest indictment of zeroing. Thus, confrontation–perhaps intractable confrontation–between the United States and the WTO dispute settlement system may be in the cards later this year.

Antidumping is not the only area where the United States is on the defensive in the WTO.  Without an ongoing negotiating round, new cases concerning agricultural subsidies are likely to be brought (Brazil and Canada have already done so). 

If the United States refuses to comply (or is seen dragging its feet for a long time), other WTO members might follow the example, and eventually the dispute settlement mechanism could become a dead letter. These are the risks to the multilateral trading system. 

The failure of Doha to bear fruit in the form of a new ambitious agreement is disappointing, but hardly catastrophic.  However, to the extent that the absence of an ongoing negotiating round (indeed, in the wake of the first failed multilateral negotiating round ever) might liberate politicians to call for unilateral actions that contravene trade agreements, it will be more important to be vigilant in the face of threats to global commerce.