[Rob Howse is the Lloyd C. Nelson Professor of International Law at NYU and is guest blogging this week here at Opinio Juris. His first post can be found here and his second, here.]
At International Economic Law and Policy Blog, where I’m a regular, I’ve been blogging for a while about the impasse in WTO Doha round negotiations and how to break through it. See here and here. India has learned from the way developed countries operated in the previous Uruguay Round of negotiations, linking different issue areas or agreements, so for example rich nations could get developing countries to agree to TRIPs (intellectual property rules), on the basis that they had to do it to get something on agriculture, etc. So, in this round, the Indians have insisted that implementing trade facilitation (mostly a developed country demand) depends on protection against WTO challenge for food security programs like India’s food subsidies for its poor.
With a bilateral deal between India and the US last week on food security, there is now the opportunity to move forward to complete the package negotiated in December 2013 at the Bali WTO Ministerial, and then, beyond that, to strike further deals that make the WTO as a negotiating forum relevant to the issues of today and tomorrow. Reflecting the diversity of the WTO’s membership, some of these accords will be plurilateral, not binding all Members, but rather in the manner of “coalitions of the willing”, but still (at least eventually) under the WTO umbrella, using its well-developed dispute settlement system and institutional framework. Thus, another bilateral accord in recent weeks, between the US and China, will allow the Members involved to push forward with a new version of the plurilateral Information Technology Agreement (ITA). At the same time, negotiations on liberalization of green goods have been happening in Geneva, another plurilateral initiative, where US leadership has been crucial (Canada’s WTO Ambassador, Jonathan Fried, has also given these talks a big push).
So, contrary to what the pessimists have been saying, the WTO is far from dead these days. But some are claiming that the recent breakthrough is in fact trivial and disguises the virtual irrelevance of the current WTO agenda. Financial Times journalist Alan Beattie, writing yesterday on one of the FT’s blogs, claims that reaching agreement with India on food security in order to push forward on the Trade Facilitation Agreement is hardly a victory, at all but perhaps a defeat in disguise. Part of Beattie’s argument is that the TFA is an unimportant accord, which has been blown up in significance because other elements of the Doha round agenda proved largely impossible to move forward on (such as genuine reform of rules on agriculture). So what is the real story about trade facilitation? Beattie is more wrong than right, and here’s why.
First of all, a little explanation of the jargon. Trade facilitation is about improving customs administration, and the necessary infrastructure to move goods across borders. Sounds boring, but the losses to otherwise efficient trade from these kinds of bottlenecks at the border, whether do to as corruption and incompetence, or just inadequate resources or out-of-date technology, are real. One may question whether, however, the WTO, or indeed any set of legal rules, is up to tackling this kind of issue: it seems more a matter of institution-building, support for new technology and infrastructure, and rule of law/governance activities such as training of officials and redesign of domestic agencies. In other words, if anything, the World Bank’s and regional development banks’ sort of thing, not the WTO’s. Thus, I myself have in the past expressed skepticism about how much the WTO can do in this area. (An excellent guide to the TFA by Ole Miss law professor Antonia Eliason can be found here).
Yet, as Ruti Teitel and I have argued in our essay “Beyond Compliance,” (more…)