Sure, there's a solid case to be made for the merits of the Doha trade round. Will Martin and Aaditya Mattoo edited a Vox e-book published last November called Unfinished Business: The WTO's Doha Agenda. In a column describing the main findings of the book, they point out: "The tariff cuts on the table compare favourably with those achieved in earlier rounds of multilateral negotiations. Even after allowing for flexibilities such as for sensitive and special products, Doha would cut the applied tariffs faced by exporters of agricultural and non-agricultural goods by around 20% ... The global real income gains from this market opening alone are conservatively estimated at around $160 billion per year. The agricultural proposals also include the abolition of export subsidies, and sharp reductions in maximum levels of domestic agricultural support in the EU and the US. ... A hard-to-quantify but nevertheless significant gain from the negotiations would be greater security of market access."
The main action in international trade talks in recent years has been through "preferential trade agreements" negotiated between two or more countries. The U.S. currently has such agreements with 17 countries. Worldwide, the WTO now has a list of 512 regional trade agreements.
Regional agreements can lead to reduced trade barriers within the group of participating countries, but greater trade barriers between that group and the rest of the world. Thus, their net effect on free trade is not clear. Caroline Evans of the San Francisco Fed points out in a recent newsletter that preferential/regional trade agreements often lead to complex "rules of origin" about what share of value-added was made in which country, and also to different tariff rates across countries. She gives an example of U.S. trousers imports:
"Rules of origin are put in place to eliminate cheating, whereby one country imports a product from a non-partner country and then re-exports it to the free-trade partner. Satisfying rules-of-origin requirements has become increasingly complex, since production processes now stretch across multiple countries. When an assembling country sources inputs from a number of other countries and then exports the finished product to another final market, it becomes difficult to determine exactly where the product originates. Since each PTA has its own rules of origin for particular parties to the agreement, meeting those requirements may become quite complicated."So if the Doha round is becalmed and the alternative of regional trade agreements is imperfect at best, what should the WTO and other friends of free trade be focusing on these days? Last November, the Strategy, Policy and Review Department of the IMF put out a paper called "The WTO Doha Trade Round--Unlocking the Negotiations and Beyond" with some suggestions for multilateral steps that could perhaps be debated and even implemented through the WTO mechanism.
"Different trade agreements also lead to separate tariff rates on imports from different countries. For example, U.S. imports of a certain kind of men’s trousers from most countries face a duty of $0.61 per kilogram plus 15.8% of the product’s value. However, if the trousers are imported from Bahrain, Canada, Chile, Israel, Jordan, Mexico, Peru, or Singapore, no duty is imposed. Trousers from Australia incur an 8% tariff; from Morocco $0.62 per kilogram plus 1.6%; and from Oman $0.488 per kilogram plus 12.6%. For non-WTO member countries, a $0.772 per kilogram plus 54.5% tariff is imposed. ... Rules of origin and the profusion of tariff rates increase the costs of trade, both for businesses involved in cross-border commerce and governments enforcing trade rules. Furthermore, they may distort production decisions as businesses navigate the web of rules and rates to minimize transaction costs."
Some of the ideas seem potentially useful to me. For example, greater monitoring of protectionist measures, including nontariff barriers and rules that require governments to buy domestically produced goods and services, seems like a step in the right direction. There are concerns that some countries restrict food exports at certain times, which makes other countries unwilling to rely on food imports, and thus leads them to subsidize their own domestic food production. Perhaps this set of issues could be isolated and discussed. And perhaps it might be possible for WTO to negotiate a set of guidelines for the proliferating preferential trade agreements, so that they are more likely to reduce overall trade barriers for the world economy, rather than reducing trade barriers for participants but raising them for everyone else.
On the other side, some of the IMF suggestions seem implausible to me. For example, one suggestion is that WTO should get into climate change issues, which would mean trying to jump-start one set of dead-in-the-water negotiations by getting involved in another set of dead-in-the-water negotiations. Another suggestion is that the WTO might develop an international antitrust policy. I'm not feeling it.
The power of the World Trade Organization is often highly overstated in public discussions. It's not a colossus imposing its own vision of a new world economic order. It's an organization with a staff of about 600 people, where decisions are made by consensus of the 153 member nations. But it is useful to have a world meeting-place for hashing out international trade issues, and there's a lot of knowledge and experience and skill wrapped up in the WTO apparatus. But if the future of the WTO is wrapped up in the endlessly stalled Doha negotiations, the organization seems likely to marginalize itself into irrelevancy.