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Disappointment and Despair at the WTO

Five Days of Futility: Disappointment and Despair at the WTO

Sunday’s collapse of the WTO talks in Cancún places the free trade regime in a precarious position of crumbling legitimacy.

Though the ostensible reason for the breakdown was a stalemate over a series of investment regulations known collectively as the “Singapore issues,” the most contentious topic of debate remained agricultural protectionism.

The continued impasse regarding the agricultural subsidies paid by rich nations could become the torpedo that sank the free-trade vessel if a solution is not soon found.

While the emergence of the “G-22” bloc presents the welcome possibility that the developing world will be able to bargain on a par with the developed world in future negotiations, it also underscores the sobering reality that future negotiations might lose their relevance altogether.

By spearheading the formation of the G-22, Brazil has established itself as a major player at the WTO and in the upcoming FTAA negotiations.

The termination of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) fifth Ministerial Meeting on Sunday was met with boisterous cheers by the anti-globalization activists gathered outside, ritual finger-pointing among the delegates huddled inside, and a sobering awareness among all present of the crumbling legitimacy of the WTO regime. The failure of the organization’s 148 member-nations to reach an agreement in Cancún, which was considered by most to be all but inevitable coming into the talks last Wednesday, marks yet another unfulfilled deadline in the “Doha Round” of negotiations, which began amid heightened expectations after the 1999 debacle at the WTO meeting in Seattle. The organization now faces the inconceivably difficult task of concluding the round by its previously established deadline of January 2005.

While officials from rich and poor nations alike are downplaying the immediate significance of the breakdown and maintaining a cautiously optimistic prognosis for future talks, it is clear that the utter failure to strike a consensus in Cancún is a crippling setback not only for the WTO, but also for other free trade talks such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which is also scheduled for a 2005 debut. With nothing but a series of vague lower-level meetings in place for the near future, the organization has a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to prove to the world that it is genuinely capable of promoting free trade and economic development before it is dismissed as irrevocably politicized and ultimately irrelevant.

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