The end of the WTO?

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Not with a bang but with a whimper. The failure of the latest efforts to revive the Doha Round hardly came as a surprise; the fact that farming (what else?) was the sticking point was not exactly shocking either. And you could argue that little was immediately at stake. The talks were partly about tariff and subsidy limits, as opposed to tariffs and subsidies actually in place (these are typically well inside their WTO bindings). The breakdown does leave the system more vulnerable to future setbacks, but no great imminent surge of trade will be blocked because of it.

The dispiriting thing is that the talks could founder over the refusal to compromise, when the costs of compromise were indeed so low. (The political costs, I mean. When a country binds itself not to resort to protection, the economic costs are not just low but negative.) Governments no longer judge a successful Doha Round to be capable of delivering them a net political gain. Since that was the reason for the WTO in the first place, the game appears to be up.

Multilateral trade liberalization brought the world an awfully long way after 1945, but that era has come to an end. The trade-reform agenda is unfinished--especially in the developing world--but future progress, if any, will come from unilateral unreciprocated liberalization, or from discriminatory bilateral (or plurilateral) agreements, or some blend of the two. There has been a lot of the first lately, which is good. The danger lies with the second. It is a trend that the United States pioneered with its proliferating (until recently) regional FTAs. A rationale often offered for that approach was that regional FTAs were building blocks for broader multilateral liberalization, with the WTO presiding over the subsequent assembly. Skeptics said no: regional FTAs would complicate the system and create frictions that would make broader trade reform more, not less, difficult. I'd say the skeptics have been proven right.

The FTA tendency is capable, given an enfeebled WTO, of eventually unwinding some of what has been achieved over the past half-century. (On this, see Jagdish Bhagwati's new book.) If a growing China, India and Brazil follow the US example and use their muscle to develop their own hub-and-spoke networks of trade preference, the eventual costs in forgone trade and income could be great. The logic of trade protection never sleeps.

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