Two recent exhortations by Jagdish Bhagwati and the WTO's Director-General Pascal Lamy to conclude the Doha round, though not original, are timely and send out some important messages. Both have warned against the consequences of a failure. The odds against concluding the round have remained high despite the lip service multilateralism has received over the years. Repeated failures to adhere to negotiating deadlines have induced a sense of scepticism, if not cynicism, over the final outcome. More than nine years after the start of the round, few people are willing to bet on a wrap-up any time soon. In fact, the possibility of a total failure is not ruled out, although trade negotiators, meeting periodically at Geneva, have been working hard for a consensus on some of the key contentious issues. In several ways, the world's major trading nations are moving away from the spirit of multilateral trade. For instance, there has been a strong preference among countries, India included, for bilateral ‘free trade' agreements, which, generally, take less time to forge and promise almost immediate results. However, it is not in the best interests of either trade or individual countries that a slew of bilateral pacts should dominate international trade. Going by the experience, these pacts lead to hegemony by the rich countries over the poor as well as discrimination and distortion in trade practices.
A multilateral trade agreement governed by uniform rules and procedures would help avoid such traps. Besides, it would give all member countries access to the disputes settlement body of the WTO, an institution through which the smallest member countries can direct the richest to stop distorting trade practices. Absent an agreement, the rule of law the WTO helped establish would be at risk of being considerably diluted. Even worse, the WTO might find itself becoming irrelevant. The irony is that after the global economic crisis of 2007 the world's leading economies have become acutely aware of the interdependence among them. The G20 countries, which tried to assume leadership of the global economy, bravely tried to find global solutions to common economic and social problems. The Seoul Summit of 2010 wanted the Doha round to be completed by 2011. However, with economic recovery spreading to the richer countries, there have been fewer compulsions to cooperate. On the contrary, jobless growth in the United States has stoked protectionist sentiment. At this juncture, the outlook for the Doha round is anything but bright.