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Cancun talks marked by difference in perspectives

The Cancun Ministerial ended without agreement on a negotiating text that would allow the Doha Round of trade negotiations to move forward, leaving the future of the Doha Round in jeopardy. The Cancun meeting was marked by a stark difference between normal expectations as understood by the developed countries and a new set of demands brought forward by developing and least developed countries.

In every negotiating group and on virtually every negotiating issue, the developing countries sought more reductions in agriculture subsidies and greater measures of market access from developed countries, while demanding more exemptions from subsidy restrictions and more exemptions from market access commitments. These demands were ultimately rejected by the developed members of the World Trade Organization.

From the opening series of speeches, it was clear that many attendees at the Ministerial believed the WTO should be transformed into a developmental organization that would make decisions and create rules in order to improve the economic conditions in the developing world. That, however, is not the premise behind the organization.

The WTO was built on the supposedly shared principal that trade liberalization will, as an economic tool, operate to reduce poverty, improve incomes and improve lives around the world. It was clear in Cancun that this principal was not shared; that many countries were participating in the process just to get better access to the U.S. and other developed countries' markets; and that there was no willingness to view trade as a two-way street or trade liberalization as a generator of economic activity.

There are many aspects of the current WTO structure that are not reported and not understood. For example, developing countries have, from the outset, been provided with special exemptions under the WTO. They have less stringent requirements. They get longer phase-in times for commitments.

In addition, least-developed countries receive even more favorable treatment and some complete exemptions from rules and disciplines. Some aspects of the system tend to restrict what developed countries are willing to do for the least-developed.

In the WTO, countries may self-notify themselves as “developing” and thereby obtain the relaxed set of rules while obtaining all of the advantages of the system. Many strong economies that are net exporters of agricultural goods take advantage of this loophole. Most notably, Brazil, with one of the world's fastest growing agricultural economies, considers itself to be “developing” and insists on the loopholes that are given to truly poor countries like Benin, like Madagascar, like Bangladesh.

China also claims to be developing and in need of special rules and exemptions in the WTO. China, with a manufacturing and export capacity that is flooding the U.S. manufacturing sector with imports, claims to need special rules in the WTO in order to effectively compete. The broad set of exemptions demanded by these net-exporters necessarily constrains what the developed world can do for those countries that are most poor.

But I digress. The WTO was not supposed to be about how much assistance can be given to poor countries - it was supposed to be about trade liberalization. With Oxfam International, Greenpeace and others jumping in to lead the press and world opinion down a road of misinformation and outright distortions; and with this mind-set leading to three days of virtually unceasing anti-U.S. rhetoric at the meeting, trade ministers finally saw the light.

Much of the world did not go to Cancun to negotiate. They went to Cancun to protest. One cannot negotiate with a protestor.

Bill Gillon is an attorney from Memphis, Tenn., who represents the National Cotton Council at the World Trade Organization negotiations in Cancun.

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