Why the Latest World Trade Failure Should be Celebrated

Alan Tonelson |

Trade policymakers have just uncharacteristically – and perhaps unwittingly – given the world economy an important holiday gift: a virtual decision to kill the so-called Doha Development Round of world trade liberalization talks.

This outcome of the latest meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Nairobi won’t make an active contribution to solving global economic problems. But it greatly reduces the odds that additional multilateral trade expansion will keep worsening the kinds of international economic imbalances that helped trigger the last financial crisis and keep threatening to set the stage for a new meltdown.

The Doha round (named after the capitol of Qatar, where it was launched) was a product of the September 11 terror attacks, but was whoppingly misconceived both strategically and economically. Though intended to spur the prosperity needed in developing countries ostensibly needed to reduce terrorism’s appeal, its founders – notably President George W. Bush’s administration trade chief Robert Zoellick – seemed unaware that dangerous extremism had never taken hold in most world regions where poverty was most desperate, e.g., rural India and rural China. Moreover, the round’s explicit aim of channeling most of its trade liberalization benefits to developing countries completely violated the core principles of genuinely free trade.

But those mistakes and their impact paled next to the damage likely from a treaty reflecting the Doha goals – ever greater global financial instability stemming from trade flows that fostered the offshoring of production, and therefore income-earning opportunities, to countries that would still long remain too poor to consume adequately, and away from the rich-country populations (especially America’s) whose purchasing power was still crucial for adequate global growth.

By the time the Doha talks were inaugurated, in 2001, years of NAFTA-style, offshoring-centric U.S. trade liberalization decisions capped by China’s admission into the WTO had already recklessly placed the U.S. and world economies on a completely unstable course. The Bush administration and the Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan further greased the skids for crisis with two decisive moves. The former filled the resulting American income and growth shortfall with renewed, and record, federal budget deficits. The latter even more powerfully fueled consumption with prolonged (then) record low peacetime interest rates. For half a decade, the United States experienced an unprecedented burst of debt-led, bubble-ized growth. And then the entire global economy nearly collapsed.

Success at Doha was always bound to magnify world trade imbalances further and ensure even more badly lopsided growth by requiring the United States and other developed countries to open their markets much wider and faster than low-income countries. Particularly important were measures practically certain to gut the U.S. trade laws that shielded America’s domestic economy from foreign predatory trade practices like export subsidization and dumping. In fact, the inequities were so egregious that even America’s staunchly pro-trade liberalization agricultural sector, which has long wielded outsized influence in Congress, balked; its reservations began the Doha hold-up that eventually brought its demise.

Unfortunately, another recent international trade policy decision is likely to add to dangerously distorted global growth – the new Information Technology Agreement reached under WTO auspices, which eliminates tariffs on many tech products but does nothing about the non-tariff barriers and predatory commercial practices used so heavily by so many U.S. trade rivals. New financial pressures may also be fueled if Congress passes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal pursued so avidly by President Obama. As I’ve often explained, this agreement’s text does target non-tariff barriers, but creates no mechanisms even remotely capable of actually curbing their use. Therefore, it’s all but certain to create the trade deficit-boosting, finance destabilizing effects of the previous American trade agreements on which it’s modeled.

All the same, TPP ratification this year looks doubtful, given election-year opposition by major Republicans in Congress. Doha’s death would represent a second “do no harm” decision in a single year – certainly not enough progress on the trade policy front, but considerably better than nothing.

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