America’s New Trade Hypocrisy

As the current “development round” of trade talks moves into its final stages, it is becoming increasingly clear that the goal of promoting development will not be served, and that the multilateral trade system will be undermined. Nowhere is this clearer than in a provision that is supposed to give the least developed countries almost duty-free access to developed countries’ markets.

A year ago, the leaders of the world’s richest countries committed themselves to alleviating the plight of the poorest. At Doha in November 2001, they pledged to give something more valuable than money: the opportunity for poor countries to sell their goods and earn their way out of poverty. With great fanfare, developed countries seemed for a while to be making good on their promise, as Europe extended the “Everything but Arms” initiative (EBA), under which it was unilaterally to open its markets to the poorest countries of the world.

The opening was less than it seemed. The devil is in the details, as many less developed countries discovered that EBA’s complicated rules of origin, together with supply-side constraints, meant that there was little chance for poor countries to export their newly liberalized products.

But the coup de grace was delivered by the world’s richest country, the United States, which once again decided to demonstrate its hypocrisy. The US ostensibly agreed to a 97% opening of its markets to the poorest countries. The developing countries were disappointed with the results of Europe’s EBA initiative, and Europe has responded by committing itself to dealing with at least part of the problem that arises from the rules of origin tests. America’s intention was, to the contrary, to seem to be opening up its markets, while doing nothing of the sort, for it appears to allow the US to select a different 3% for each country. The result is what is mockingly coming to be called the EBP initiative: developing countries will be allowed freely to export everything but what they produce. They can export jet engines, supercomputers, airplanes, computer chips of all kinds—just not textiles, agricultural products, or processed foods, the goods they can and do produce.