The Bali agreement rescued the World Trade Organization (WTO) from oblivion, but it also underscored the severe limitations of multilateral negotiations and the need to reform the institution. Encouragingly, it also points the way to how the WTO can change.
In Bali, the WTO reaffirmed the importance of its development mandate, but only by reiterating the contents of prior agreements, adding little new. It also, however, took a significant step forward and one, smaller one, backward. The step forward was to establish trade facilitation – in this case essentially entailing the proper functioning of customs – as part and parcel of the WTO’s functioning, including the creation of a standing committee to oversee the implementation of the agreement.
The step backward was to allow (temporarily, but temporary easily becomes permanent in trade policy) India and other developing countries a major exception to limits on agricultural subsidies on account of food security. It is easy to imagine how such an exception will make it more difficult to make progress on eliminating all trade-distorting agricultural subsidies, traditionally a defensive agenda of advanced countries, and one on which the WTO supposedly plays a unique role. And failure to move on agricultural subsidies in the future will reduce the chances that advanced countries will obtain their long-sought quid pro quo, which is improved and more secure access to manufacturing and service markets in developing countries.
But trade facilitation stood out as an exception on which many could agree. True, the significance of the trade facilitation agreement can be easily overstated, since in Bali it was whittled down to what is effectively a “best efforts” endeavour with an open-ended implementation schedule for developing countries. This includes freedom on their part to self- what gets done faster, and what gets done on an indefinite schedule. Meanwhile, advanced countries and some developing countries have already largely implemented the good practices the agreement entails, such as prompt publication of changes in regulations, pre-shipping inspections where appropriate, redress procedures, and rapid processing times. But the importance of the trade facilitation agreement can also be understated, since extensive research has shown that the cost of custom delays can easily outstrip that of tariffs, and even a “best efforts” international agreement can strengthen the hands of reformers when the political will to improve exists.
Still, even the staunchest multilateralists will agree that Bali represents slim pickings for a wide-ranging negotiation that began in Doha 12 years before, and that negotiations involving 160 very diverse countries (Yemen being the latest addition) are very unlikely to yield anything other than minimum common denominator outcomes. Bali therefore underscores the need to move to a more efficient model for WTO negotiations, one that can involve a smaller, critical mass of players willing to engage on a narrow set of issues – so-called “plurilaterals” – rather than requiring that all countries agree on every aspect. There are illustrious precedents for this, including, for example the government procurement agreement, the information technology agreement and the agreement on financial services, all three of which are now the object of negotiation to be extended or deepened in various ways. Read more