• World

Doing a Deal in Doha

4 minute read

It was hailed as a timely tonic for the worlds faltering economy, a bold three-year program updating trade rules set over half a century ago to meet the sophisticated demands of todays global village. And a political message for those who feared that the Seattle antiglobalization protests of 1999 and the terrorist acts of Sept. 11 had crippled international consensus making.

But for all the worthy aims of the new round of World Trade Organization negotiations, the six-day talks to launch them last week in Doha were grueling and acrimonious. The meeting in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar was characterized by sly diplomatic intrigue, brutal arm twisting, pompous political grandstanding and foul humor. And although bleary-eyed ministers and officials claimed the new trade agenda more or less pleased everyone, they also showed that getting 142 nations to agree on anything is like building a house of cards on the back of a galloping camel.

No doubt, the new WTO blueprint is hugely ambitious. It commits trade officials to negotiate an end to agricultural subsidies across the globe, discuss a new competition framework, debate equal treatment for foreign investors, speed up customs procedures, improve market access for the WTOs poorer nations and sort out the complex relationship between environmental treaties and trade rules. The World Bank has already estimated that the new round could boost growth by up to $2.8 trillion by 2015.

The meeting reaffirmed the worlds multilateral credentials after rioting activists two years ago forced the breakdown of the WTOs Seattle meeting, which also attempted to launch a new trade round. This time, tough visa rules and tight security kept demonstrators away, and Sept. 11 appeared to encourage delegates to look beyond their own narrow horizons. So a deal was struck. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the wto sent a powerful signal. “We have removed the stain of Seattle,” he said. “We are helping to deliver growth, development and prosperity throughout the world.”

Zoellick emerged as the meetings savior after shepherding the last stage of the talks when many thought everything would unravel. He had already cleared a huge roadblock earlier on when he agreed to allow poor countries to waive the usual patent rules for life-saving medicines, facing down the powerful U.S. pharmaceutical industry. His initial pro-drug-company position was undercut when the U.S. considered breaking the Cipro patent during the recent anthrax scare.

On the fifth — and supposedly last — day of the conference, he stepped in to help his pal, beleaguered European Union trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, who was struggling to defend the E.U.s much-maligned Common Agricultural Policy. With the rest of the WTO seeking an apparently innocuous commitment to phase out agriculture subsidies, and France threatening to flounce out of the meeting if such a plan were accepted, Zoellick came up with a face-saving caveat. The words phasing out were kept, but they were preceded by “without prejudging the outcome of the negotiations,” meaning that there was no need actually to achieve that aim.

Everything then seemed to fit into place: the environmental plans pushed by the E.U. were cleared, as were new issues of investment, competition and procurement. But then Indias Commerce Minister, Murasoli Maran, stunned the ministers by announcing he could not accept the deal. Under the WTOs consensus rules, objections from just one country are enough to paralyze decisions. For 10 hours, the gutsy Maran took on the entire WTO until he was assured that the new issues would not be tackled for another two years. Was he intimated by the E.U. and the U.S. during the standoff? “No, I intimidated them!” Maran replied. His brinkmanship undoubtedly heralded a coming-of-age for the developing countries, which make up three-quarters of the WTOs members. Their impact is expected to grow further with the admission at Doha of China into the WTO.

With 1.3 billion new consumers on their side in the WTO, the developing world is less likely than ever to be bullied into submission by Europe and America — in Doha or anywhere else.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com