Despite attempts to carry it forward, the 10-year-old Doha round of trade talks has reached a moribund state. Although none among the 153 member countries of the World Trade Organisation has thrown in the towel as yet, there is very little chance of the talks reviving in the near future. WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy was putting it mildly when he said recently that the talks have reached a deadlock. But rather than pitch for a revival, the WTO and member countries having a vested interest in trade are keen on preserving the gains of multilateral agreements. And, why not? A successful conclusion to the Doha round would no doubt have boosted multilateralism. But since that seems impossible why not judiciously harness its principles in future trade talks. Multilateral trade has conferred many advantages in the past and is still extremely relevant. During the recent crisis, it helped in the smooth flow of goods and services between countries and in peaceful settlement of trade disputes. It also aided capacity-building in developing countries. At the present juncture, with the global economy limping towards recovery and many countries mired in sovereign debts, multilateral trade could be the only tool to fight poverty, generate employment, and counter the creeping protectionism in the developed countries.
The Doha round launched in November 2001 has had a chequered history, missing many deadlines over the past decade. Yet, at the very moment it is fading into oblivion, it is worth noting some of its achievements. The very fact that discussions were kept open for so long despite the seemingly irreconcilable positions of its members is a recognition of its intrinsic merits. It is a matter of record that trade negotiators managed to whittle down the many serious differences that cropped up. What let the Doha talks remain stuck was the lack of political leadership. Many countries have been moving away from the spirit of multilateral trade. For instance, several countries — India included — have shown a strong preference for bilateral “free trade” agreements which take less time to forge and promise almost immediate results. Experience suggests that these are second-best options and can only promote the hegemony of rich countries and distort trade policies. It is unfortunate that the failure of Doha talks will weaken the WTO itself. Member countries need to be convinced that despite the setback, the future lies in multilateral trade. It is in the fitness of things that the next ministerial meeting due to take place between December 15 and 17 at Geneva will be asked to draw a map for sustaining the multilateral system in future.