The Too-Quiet American

NEW YORK – It is now apparent that the United States is the main culprit in preventing the ten-year-old multilateral trade negotiations known as the Doha Round from being closed this year. The US has even spurned World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy’s desperate attempt to get member states to support a wholly emasculated agreement – described by critics as Doha Lite and Decaffeinated – which is mainly confined to some concessions to the least-developed countries.

While there are bit players who could be cast as villains, America’s ambassador to the WTO, Michael Punke, has assumed the role of global trade’s Mr. No. But the problem is not Punke. America’s rejectionist stance comes from the top of the US government, starting with President Barack Obama’s lack of leadership.

From the outset of his presidency, Obama’s defense of a liberal trade regime has been inadequate. He has said repeatedly that exports are good for the US: they create jobs. But US exports are other nations’ imports, so Obama’s argument amounts to telling others to lose their jobs. He needs to remind Americans that imports are also good: he can surely ask his audience to think of jobs in the UPS cargo planes, freight trains, and trucks that carry imports into the American interior.

The main problem, however, is that Obama has been unable to confront, and put to rest, US labor unions’ fear-driven hostility to trade. Nor has he been willing to confront the business lobbies that are willing to hold the Doha Round hostage in order to extract ever more concessions by other countries, even though they know that the trade talks are about to be sucked into the Bermuda Triangle of the 2012 US presidential election.