If I’d known then what I know now, I would have had a better understanding of the significance of the first successful world trade negotiation I covered.
It was a once-in-a-generation event.
That realization might even have changed my coverage a bit.
It was 1993 in Geneva and I already was something of a trade negotiation veteran by then, having covered the creation of the Cairns Group in 1986 in Australia, the failed General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks in Montreal in 1988 and finally the failed GATT talks in Brussels in 1990.
Divisions over agriculture always were at the core of the collapse.
But since all the GATT country members had agreed in 1986 in Uruguay to negotiate comprehensive world trade and subsidy rules aimed at reducing protectionism and ending or controlling the United States-European Union export subsidy war that was driving Prairie grain prices down, I figured the first two failures were an anomaly.
Geneva 1993 and its successful outcome, while a difficult and complex negotiation that almost didn’t make it, confirmed my assumption that success in these trade talks would be the rule rather than the exception.
The next 20 years proved me wrong. Other than a painfully cobbled together deal in Doha, Qatar to launch a new negotiating round in part as a defiant world answer to the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, the years since have featured nothing but failure.
Seattle in 1999 was a bloody and violent fiasco, Cancun in 2003 a debacle, Hong Kong in 2005 a muddled jumble that produced just one point of agreement — a commitment to end export subsidies by 2013 which has not happened because the commitment was made assuming it would be part of a broader deal by now.
The WTO has had a rule that “nothing is decided until everything is decided” which means that bite-size deals were not possible.
Then came new failures at Geneva 2008 and Geneva 2011 as divisions grew and then-WTO director general Pascal Lamy tried unsuccessfully to cajole and bully delegates to agree to something — anything — before his 10 years at the helm ended this year.
So the fact that a deal was struck in Bali Dec. 7, in part because new DG Robert Azevedo broke with tradition and offered a more bite sized set of proposals that did not require agreement on a full package, was remarkable.
The WTO had become synonymous with failure so approval of a limited deal was a big deal.
It proved the WTO can perform and deliver as a trade negotiating forum, said enthusiasts. It injected momentum that will allow completion of a broader comprehensive deal in coming years, said WTO optimists.
Well maybe. Last weekend’s grasp of last-moment victory out of the jaws of impending defeat illustrated that the organization can surprise.
However, the basic complexity of the negotiations that lie ahead and the fact that the all-or-nothing rule still applies suggest enthusiasm about the prospect of a comprehensive deal anytime soon should be tempered with caution and reality.
The goodwill that existed in the room Saturday morning when delegates applauded the deal soon will be replaced with the realization that the old divisions, suspicions and incompatible goals among members remain.
WTO will have its share of failures at future ministerial meetings before there are any more moments of celebration.