Issue of Relativity
There once was a French lady I met, who happened to have her birthday then. Born during the First World War, she was about to turn 98. As I was wishing her a happy birthday, she was telling me that “j’ai quatre vingt dix huit ans maintenant,” and gentle as always, she was translating what she had said into English: “I am twenty-eight now.”
The French language is difficult when it comes to numbers, and “four times twenty eighteen” can easily be translated as twenty eight apparently. This reminded me that tough mathematics is a science, and calculation of time is pretty scientific, time is a relative thing.
The relativity comes into play when one contrasts human life with organizational life. Take the case of the World Trade Organization (WTO) for example – founded in 1995, the Organization is now 19 years old;1 enough to make it considered an adult in many legal systems. Take its first negotiation round, known as the Doha Round, which was launched in 2001. By this calculation, Doha can be considered as a teenager; yet it is not even at halfway to maturity. When it comes to humanbeings, we have no exact timeline about the age the baby will start walking, talking and even arguing with us; yet we know that at a certain age, he will go to school, at another age, he will be an adult.
The timing gets even more blurred on issues related to adulthood as no one knows whether he will go to college, get married, start his own job or live in total isolation. Here for the Doha Round, we play at the blurred side of the timeline. There is no way to predict how long it will take for the Round to end its teenage-ship. Strangely enough, despite there is low level of dedication to bring Doha up, there is no intention to leave it on the shelves either. Why?
Why Does the Doha Round Not Leap Forward?
Conventional explanations focus on the fact that all the low-hanging fruits of trade liberalization had already been collected; hence current negotiations continue over the hard topics.
Others say it is difficult to raise and sustain consensus of 160 members. In the end, world trade agenda is set by developed countries, who make less than one third of the total membership. Developing and least developed countries now make mathematical majority, hence they should be setting the agenda. However, as it is with time, with numbers again one sees that there is relativity – Regardless developing or developed, if an actor big enough to cast its shadow on the negotiations, it can bend the agenda on its own, and regardless they make the majority, developing countries differ among themselves when it comes to their national interests.
It is also easy to fall back on the “global crisis” discourse, and say that following 2008, countries have resorted to protectionist measures more often than ever. Hence, as this pessimist perception goes, it is difficult if not impossible to talk about liberalization and kick Doha back into the picture.
However, current developments do not confirm these lines of arguments: despite the negotiation fatigue, diverse national positions or global crisis, liberalization continues at least at the regional level. It can be argued that this is a move to circumvent the stalemate decorating the classical developed-developing country skirmishes in the WTO. Well, this argument may work for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (known also as the EU-US free trade agreement), but the Trans-Pacific Partnership shows that developed and developing countries can well sit on the same table and talk about ways and means for further liberalization of trade.
Then, the question becomes, why do negotiations get stalled in the WTO?
Why Doha Cannot Be Left on the Shelves? The Security Effect
It is possible to argue that the WTO is not responding to the changes in the global trade. In the end, though mathematics say it is a 19-year-old Organization, its institutional roots go back to the GATT; and the WTO introduced few, if any, changes from its precedent. Among them is counted the Dispute Settlement Mechanism, but even this crown jewel of the multilateral trade system has problems and needs modernization. It is possible to hook up the regional trade agreements into the WTO system through this Mechanism by regionalizing multilateral trade rules. This, however, will rescue the Organization; it is hardly sufficient to secure the survival of Doha. Yet, Doha is not left to die either. Why?
My answer to this question differs from conventional explanations resting on the political commitments, prestige problems, economic theories or the like. Rather, I will argue that Doha cannot die in peace because one of the reasons behind its initiation was to bolster peace.
Doha Round of Negotiations was launched at the 4th Ministerial Conference in Qatar, held on 9-14 November 2001 under the banner of the “Doha Development Agenda”. The launch came two months after the September 11 attacks, and just one after the operation in Afghanistan began on October 7. Numbers are destined to be relative of course, but timing can hardly be coincidental: the opportunity was seized with the launch of a massive attempt for trade liberalization.
Modalities after modalities were introduced enveloping formulas for tariff cuts, alternatives for reduction (if possible, elimination) of non-tariff barriers, and options for legislative harmonization; but in time the momentum was lost. That can be linked to the fact that despite the initial optimistic turn to trade as a tool for development, and to development as a tool for preventing extremism, the following period (re)turned to the military options. Less than two years after the launch of the negotiations, the “Coalition of the Willing” was in Iraq, for example; and was pushing hard on Iran and Libya. That year also marked the failure of the Cancun Ministerial. Therefore, the dedication in the “development” aspect of the Doha was left on the shelves. With increasing US eye on Iranian proliferation attempts and even on yet-another-operation, negotiations could only resume in 2007, destined to fail once again in 2008, when the UNSC passed two resolutions on Iran.
At the current stage of the negotiations, what we have is what is known as the “Bali Package”- a set of ministerial declarations on ten different topics. Notice that they are not agreements, hence they are not binding. Among them only the declaration on trade facilitation is promising on the condition that legal scrubbing can be finalized within the deadlines. Given the current negotiation positions of member countries, the road ahead is not rosy, nor meeting the deadlines will be easy.
To Conclude: Relativity Once Again
Even the WTO Director General Azevedo reminded on different occasions that Bali is not over; Bali signifies just a new agenda, not a settlement. This means, Doha is not dead, or not declared dead – yet, it is in a coma.
Ongoing negotiations confirm that Rome was not built in one day, and building a city is an ongoing process: it is necessary to follow modern city-planning techniques, reform the infrastructure, develop plans and projects to meet the new needs, and in the end, make the inhabitants happy. Same goes for the WTO – it needs to satisfy all the members, but it is hard to get the consensus; negotiations should continue to sustain liberalization, but Doha Development Agenda dates back to 2001 and trade agenda has evolved a lot in the past 13 years; new projects like regional agreements are promising but can also be stumbling blocks for the future of multilateral trade system hence have to be handled carefully.
Conventional arguments favoring the continuation of Doha Round focus on the cost side of the medal: costs of policy shift reflected in political commitment to conclude Doha, costs of giving up success measured in difficulty of facing and digesting the failure, costs of all the attempts to flex if not to bend the national positions, costs of providing (and losing) maneuvering rooms for reaching the high-hanging fruits, and last but not least, sunk cost of all these years of negotiations.
The issue of relativity enters into the picture as we sum up the arguments above. Agreeing that Doha cannot be pushed into the trashcan, my argument is that Doha should not only be seen through the “costs” dimension. Doha offers benefits too. Again, I am not mentioning about a trillion Dollars of welfare gains in case only the trade facilitation section of Bali package is realized. My point is in line with the liberal peace theory, which argues that trade is an instrument serving not only for the benefit of businessmen (in terms of profit), consumers (in terms of cheap, qualified and wide-variety products) or states (in terms of tariff revenues), but also of world peace.
I hardly claim that trade is a panacea. But following the liberal peace theory, and looking through security lenses, it can be argued that Doha Development Agenda cannot be pushed to the trashcan because one of the reasons of its emphasis on “development” notion was to ensure peace via increasing global wealth. As outlined above, past is full of samples where WTO members turned to military sticks instead of trade carrots. Let’s hope the current regional crises serve as a historical deviation, hence the momentum gained in Bali can be bolstered further with a brand-new vision of providing global peace via trade.
Ece Aksop is a PhD student at METU, Turkey. She holds masters degree from Sciences Po Ecole de Droit.