From Seattle to Hong Kong

FREEING TRADE SO FAR

There were eight successful rounds of multilateral trade negotiations (MTN) under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The first round of talks were held in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1947 and the last was launched in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in 1986. This last round was concluded in 1994 in Marrakesh, Morocco, and led to the creation of the GATT's successor, the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Although they might seem like successes in retrospect, it is important to recall that few of these MTNs went smoothly. Moreover, with each successive round, the negotiators' task has grown more complex, even as their ability to close trade deals has increasingly been impaired by the greater visibility of the process and the growing involvement of a variety of lobbies and stakeholders. The issues have also become more complicated, thanks to the proliferation of non-trade barriers and to sectors such as agriculture that had earlier been shunted aside by waivers. So it is hardly surprising that the Uruguay Round of talks took nearly eight years to complete and suffered midway breakdowns and cascading crises of confidence, whereas the preceding Tokyo Round took five years and the previous rounds took much less.

The current talks -- the Doha Round -- are the first to be conducted under the WTO. Like the recent GATT rounds, this one has been a roller coaster, full of near breakthroughs followed by near breakdowns. Indeed, controversy has beset the talks since their very beginning. Officials had hoped to start the round in November 1999, during the WTO ministerial talks in Seattle, Washington. But that meeting collapsed in the face of unruly street demonstrations, and it was not until the next ministerial meeting, held in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001, that the round was launched. By then, of course, the attacks of September 11 had dramatically changed the international climate, and the negotiators used this tragedy to affirm the importance of democracy and openness to the world economy.

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