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It isn’t me, it’s you: The many interpretations of WTO failure

Trade ministers from around the world are in Paris today for the 50th anniversary of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — a favourite echo chamber of conservative governments looking for outside justifications for unpopular neoliberal reforms. But with WTO failure the main topic of conversation, as it was five days ago at the APEC summit in Montana, it’s a bit of an unhappy birthday for the OECD.

For the past year (or is it 10 years?) countries of the North and South have pointed fingers of blame at each other for why the Doha Development Round, launched in 2001, cannot be concluded. None of that matters anymore. The most mainstream commentators have declared the round “doomed.” The gaps on manufacturing tariffs (developing countries don’t see why they should not protect fledgling industries as rich countries did), agriculture (rich countries won’t stop subsidizing their farm exports, or open up to foreign imports), and services (the Global South can see this is a one-way street, with cash benefits flowing North) are unbridgeable.

Former U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said this week, “There is not going to be a big happy conclusion and therefore we need to move on… You can’t unbreak the egg.” She makes the case in Foreign Policy magazine this month that WTO member countries should salvage what they can of the Doha Round agreements and move on.

Today, current USTR Ron Kirk seemed to blame performance anxiety when he told Paris journalists, “We have not advanced the case for global trade by setting these artificial deadlines without being willing to honestly look at how we can bring this round to a close… That means, for the United States, that you take the time to work and you stay at the table until you get a deal that we think has merit.”

Canada’s new trade minister, Ed Fast, didn’t even mention the WTO in his statement marking the OECD’s birthday. It’s likely the Harper government has quietly given up in Geneva to pursue broader ambitions in Brussels through the Canada-EU free trade negotiations.

“As we move toward a sustained economic recovery and with trade representing about 60 percent of our economy, pursuing an ambitious free trade agenda is more important than ever,” said Minister Fast, skilfully conflating “free” trade with sustainable development despite the poverty and inequality neoliberal reforms have created globally. “The Government of Canada is committed to expanding trade to open doors for Canadian exporters, encourage economic growth and create jobs for Canadians.”

The OECD and WTO, on the other hand, have the audacity to hope. In a joint statement with UNCTAD, released this week alongside a report warning against protectionist tendencies among G20 nations, the global arbiters of neoliberal governance said “it is time to start looking for a way forward which preserves the objectives and values of the Doha mandate and delivers for all members by the 8th WTO Ministerial Conference in December 2011.”

Here’s Kirk again, on behalf of the U.S., formerly the WTO’s biggest supporter:

“I see three possible paths: keep doing what we have been doing, give up or start thinking of something different that will lead us in a better direction.”

So… keep pointing fingers at poor countries while demanding more from them, give up, or give up on Doha. Happy birthday OECD, and good riddance WTO.