"The Doha Round, the first multilateral trade negotiation conducted under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation, is at a critical stage. Now in their 10th year, with much negotiated, the talks need a final political nudge, lest Doha – and hence the WTO – disappear from the world's radar screen.
Indeed, the danger is already real: when I was in Geneva a year ago and staying at the upscale Mandarin Oriental, I asked the concierge how far away the WTO was. He looked at me and asked: 'Is the World Trade Organisation a travel agency?'
The threat of irrelevance is understood by leading statesmen, who have committed themselves to putting their shoulders to the wheel. British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have unequivocally endorsed the recommendation of the High-level Expert Group on Trade, which Peter Sutherland and I co-chair, that we ought to abandon the Doha Round if it is not concluded by the end of this year.
Our idea was that, just as the prospect of an imminent hanging concentrates the mind, the deadline and prospective death of the Doha Round would galvanise the world's statesmen behind completing the last mile of the marathon. (The analogy is all the more appropriate, given that WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy, who has brilliantly kept the process going, is a marathon runner.)
But even as these efforts are gathering momentum, The Financial Times, which used to be a staunch supporter of multilateral free trade, dropped a cluster bomb on Doha, even congratulating itself that, in 2008 (when a ministerial meeting failed to reach closure), it 'argued that leaders should admit the negotiations were dead'. But if sceptics forget Mark Twain's famous response to a mistaken obituary – 'The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated' – were the negotiators who have continued to work since then akin to Gogol's 'dead souls?'
The Financial Times recommends working out a Plan B here and now, which would sabotage the political efforts to conclude the Doha Round. Despite rhetorical bromides about requiring 'ministers to unlearn ingrained habits and focus on substance, not rhetoric,' and about 'business associations engaging with the granular detail of what companies want,' this proposed Plan B would strengthen the bilateral and regional trade initiatives that have diverted energy and attention from Doha and the WTO.
The irony here is that the proliferation of such preferential trade agreements (PTAs) is usually justified by pointing to the lack of progress in concluding the Doha talks. Never have cause and effect been so dramatically reversed in arguments over trade policy."
To read the op-ed in full, please click here.
(Published in partnership with Project Syndicate.)