By Eurasia Group analyst Sean West
Earlier this month, the G8+5, the world's leading industrial states plus some other important developing states, committed to finishing the Doha Round of trade talks by the end of 2010. U.S. and Chinese officials paid lip service to finishing Doha this week during the inaugural bilateral "Strategic and Economic Dialogue." World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy will likely cite both announcements as cause for celebration. Healthy skepticism is in order.
Overblown fears of oncoming protectionism were all the rage just weeks ago. But as Ian Bremmer wrote in this space back in March, the financial crisis need not trigger as many new trade barriers as some feared. Still, the global liberalization envisioned by a completed Doha Round by the end of next year is likely a bridge too far.
Pledges aside, there's not much reason to be optimistic that a deal can be concluded in the near future. Personality conflicts may have receded, as both Susan Schwab and Kamal Nath -- who banged heads last year -- no longer represent the United States and India respectively. But domestic conditions in the wake of the financial crisis won't help much with trade liberalization. While there's ample reason to be skeptical that neither China nor the EU are any more ready conclude an agreement than in the past, all other countries can play wait-and-see unless and until the United States shows serious leadership.
Obama has yet to lay out a clear strategy for the Doha Round. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has said several times that the United States considers Doha completion as critical, but there's no evidence yet that he'll have the political support he needs to set policy and to bargain. Comments from Obama himself on Doha have been ambiguous at best, warning of an "imbalance" in potential trade-offs on the table in current negotiations. It's also not yet clear how much political capital Obama will put at risk at a moment when he needs the support of organized labor for a host of other domestic priorities. And in a nod to agricultural interests, he allowed his budget proposal to cut farm subsidies -- a critical sticking point in the Doha negotiations -- to die on arrival.
Real movement on trade policy remains on hold until the president explains publicly how trade policy fits into his administration's broader agenda -- a speech he might give in advance of the September G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. But he'll have to use that speech to persuade an anxious American public -- and many trade skeptical US lawmakers -- that trade deals can spur growth without killing jobs. Obama has an advantage. His history suggests that he believes in the benefits of trade, and in a Nixon-goes-to-China way, he can spend political capital earned on the campaign trail to bring trade-wary Democrats along with his initiatives. But he has so far provided no indication that he's ready to accept the political risks that come with the push needed to get Doha done within 18 months.
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