America’s Free-Trade Abdication

NEW YORK – The indifference and apathy that one finds in Washington from both the Congress and President Barack Obama on the Doha Round of world trade talks, and the alarm and concern expressed by statesmen elsewhere over the languishing negotiations, mark the end of the post-1945 era of American leadership on multilateral free trade.

Evidence of anxiety outside the US has been clear to everyone for almost a year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron were concerned enough to join with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül and Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in appointing Peter Sutherland and me as Co-Chairs of a High-Level Trade Experts Group in November 2010. We held a prestigious Panel at Davos with these leaders in January 2011, where, on the occasion of our Interim Report, we gave full-throated support to concluding Doha. But there was no response from the US government.

In September, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo reminded G-20 leaders that in November 2009, at their first meeting in London, they had expressed “a commitment to …conclude the Round in 2010.” And, two weeks ago, the UN met again on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Goal 8 is about instruments such as trade and aid, and MDG 8A commits the UN member nations to “[d]evelop further an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system.”

But, while practically every country today has embraced preferential Free Trade Agreements, the recent leader in this proliferation is the US. There, Congress and the president apparently have plenty of time to discuss bilateral FTAs with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, as well as the regional Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but none for negotiating the non-discriminatory Doha Round, which is languishing in its tenth year of talks.