From Seattle to Hong Kong: There have been eight rounds of multilateral trade negotiations prior to Doha. Although they all ended well, it is important to remember that few went smoothly. Negotiators in Hong Kong now face real obstacles, but there is reason for hope — if, that is, they have the will and courage to do what is necessary to succeed. (Jagdish Bhagwati, December 2005, Foreign Affairs)
There were eight successful rounds of multilateral trade negotiations (MTN) under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The first round of talks were held in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1947 and the last was launched in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in 1986. This last round was concluded in 1994 in Marrakesh, Morocco, and led to the creation of the GATT’s successor, the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Although they might seem like successes in retrospect, it is important to recall that few of these MTNs went smoothly. Moreover, with each successive round, the negotiators’ task has grown more complex, even as their ability to close trade deals has increasingly been impaired by the greater visibility of the process and the growing involvement of a variety of lobbies and stakeholders. The issues have also become more complicated, thanks to the proliferation of non-trade barriers and to sectors such as agriculture that had earlier been shunted aside by waivers. So it is hardly surprising that the Uruguay Round of talks took nearly eight years to complete and suffered midway breakdowns and cascading crises of confidence, whereas the preceding Tokyo Round took five years and the previous rounds took much less. […]
[T]he central breakthrough at Cancún was the emergence of the Group of 20 (G-20), led by Brazil, India, and South Africa. Seen at first as spoilers, these countries had played a negligible role in earlier negotiating rounds. Press coverage of the MTNs tended to focus almost exclusively on the interplay between the European and the American trade representatives, who were treated as the stars of the trade talks with others sidelined to obscurity. At Cancún, however, this dynamic finally changed. Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, made a dramatic stand, planting the flag of the developing world on the MTN map and forcing the media to pay attention to its interests. In past years, the Quad — the United States, the EU, Japan, and Canada — had set the terms of the negotiations. After Cancún, however, the agenda was set by a new Group of 5, which included the United States, the EU, Brazil, India, and Australia (as a representative of the Cairns Group of 17 agriculture-exporting countries).
Cancún thus represented a triumph for developing countries, which suddenly gained recognition and a political stake in the negotiations. Indeed, the G-20 even managed to demand successfully that the EU and the United States go back to the drawing board and come back with improved offers on agricultural subsidies and trade barriers. This development augurs well for the future, since effective negotiations can occur only among equals; finally, representatives from Washington and Brussels face opponents their own size (or near to it).
Even the fact that the Cancún talks did not wrap up the Doha Round should not be seen as a failure. After all, at the time of Cancún, the Doha Round was only two years old. Both the Tokyo and Uruguay Rounds had taken much longer to close. Finishing Doha so quickly would have taken a miracle, and miracles do not happen in trade. […]
The most difficult issue is lowering agricultural protections; in recent months, Washington and Brussels have lobbed related offers and counteroffers at each other without much progress. The EU itself is divided between France and its allies, which oppose making any serious concessions, and the United Kingdom and the Nordic countries, which favor accommodation.
The French opposition to the liberalization of agricultural trade rules seems animated by the popular and populist conviction that reducing such barriers would constitute an attack on both French agriculture and French culture.
Just make it a frontal assault on France and cut them out of the trade scheme.