Consensus among WTO membership unlikely, even with help from above

BALI, Indonesia — Indonesian trade minister Gita Wirjawan, who co-chaired this week’s World Trade Organization meeting, may be onto something about reviving WTO fortunes.

Explaining to reporters Dec. 2 why he thinks a deal can be reached on a modest agricultural package, he said it is possible “if we pray hard and work hard.”

Later, pressed about his optimism in the face of 12 years of WTO failure to agree to almost anything, he replied with a smile: “I believe in God.”

Is a new WTO agreement on trade and domestic subsidy rules a big enough deal to invoke divine intervention?

Critics of multilateralism as a sellout to Big Capitalist forces at the expense of “the people” see it as the devil’s work.

However, there is a certain blind theological faith among those true believers who support a multinational deal as the only way to make the food production system around the world fair and give efficient farmers a level playing field in the fight for market share against perceived subsidized competitors.

To experience that, take a New Zealander to lunch and slip the words “supply management” into the conversation.

Although Canadian farm opinions can sometimes be more nuanced, there certainly is some of that blind faith here, too.

As usual, Canadian agriculture has a larger contingent of farm lobbyists at the WTO meeting in Bali than any other country: some exporters are there to promote less policy-fettered trade, while supply management folks warily watch to make sure their essential border protections are not dismantled or eroded.

It never hurts to pray in hopes of divine intervention — what is there to lose? — but maybe the prayers would be better directed to have Her inject some wisdom into politicians to finally consider whether the structure of the WTO is a major part of the problem.

Of course, fixing it would be even more politically unlikely than finding a new comprehensive trade deal, but at this point no one is even willing to get the discussion going.

It simply would remind people of the legacy of the WTO and its predecessor as a clubhouse for rich developed traders who set the rules and reaped the benefits.

Now, the pendulum has swung too much the other way.

It is the ultimate democratic organization in which every one of the 159 member states has a veto.

The core of the current stalemate is a battle between developed, developing and least developed countries over whether the latter should in the name of development be largely exempt from any rules to limit rich country ability to protect markets and subsidize production. However, the “paralysis,” as WTO official Keith Rockwell called it Dec. 2, will continue.

There is little common ground.

And with the WTO membership expanding to include countries with lower economic output than Brandon, but that will have a veto, consensus on anything major seems impossible.

The WTO has largely lost its way on the political front, while remaining robust on rules enforcement, and those who applaud the democracy that will force it to become an agent for world economic justice are dreaming.

On second thought, this may be way too big, complicated and hopeless for divine intervention.

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