A draft document intended to give negotiators a framework for next week's World Trade Organization conference offers few details on how they will expand global commerce. Analysts say the vagueness reflects the fact that wide gulfs remain between governments in just how to liberalize trade.
The draft declaration issued by WTO Director General Pascal Lamy last month outlines areas where negotiators converge. It reaffirms WTO members' commitment to keep negotiating on key issues such as farm subsidies and market access for manufactured goods. However, the draft also shows no hint of an agreement on just what methods will be used to complete the negotiations.
Alan Oxley is a former director of GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - the predecessor of the World Trade Organization. He is now chairman of World Growth, a Washington group that promotes free trade. He says the declaration's vagueness reflects the long and complex process of coming up with a plan for freer global commerce.
"If most people read it they'd be a bit mystified as to what it meant because it is very wordy. It's more like a U.N. declaration," he said. "Members of the WTO worked hard to try to get an agreement on what they could get the ministers to agree on at this meeting to bring the round to a successful conclusion."
No one is expecting a definite conclusion to come at this meeting in Hong Kong, which starts December 13 and brings together all 149 WTO members. The aim early on was to come up with a draft that addressed thorny issues, including slashing farm subsidies in richer countries and dropping many tariffs in developing nations.
The WTO has been trying to find a way to fulfill the Doha Development Agenda - a plan set out in 2001 to liberalize world trade in a way that helps poor nations build their economies.
Mr. Oxley says the draft declaration for the Hong Kong conference fails to give a blueprint for completing the Doha agenda. He says this was to be expected in a process that by all accounts will be drawn-out.
"You mustn't forget that this round is not due to finish until the end of 2006. The Hong Kong meeting was always meant to be an interim step, another step up the ladder - an agreement to lay out some bases from which further liberalization could be made," added Mr. Oxley. "The truth is that they were unable to agree on such a framework."
Another global trade expert, London School of Economics Professor Linda Yueh, says parts of the draft declaration look promising because they touch on farm subsidies - the biggest political issue in the negotiations. However, she says the document does not contain a formula to move the talks forward.
"There were a number of points considered involving reduction in agricultural support, involving an intent to open industrial goods markets in the developing countries," said Ms. Yueh. "It does sound vague because it is rather vague and the framework which was put forward essentially didn't have a great deal of detail."
She says the U.S. proposal to reduce and eventually eliminate agricultural subsidies is a step forward, as are offers by the European Union nations to slash their farm subsidies.
However, there is no indication these concessions will be enough to satisfy developing nations, which demand that rich countries cut farm subsidies deeply before they allow wider access to markets for manufactured goods and services.
Sumner La Croix is an economics professor at the University of Hawaii and a fellow at the East-West Center research institute in Honolulu. He says it was important for Mr. Lamy to put out a draft declaration ahead of the Hong Kong meeting, even if the document is vague.
"It's always useful when the director general puts forth such a document. It helps galvanize the parties, where they are," he said.
If nothing else, experts say, the draft makes it clear just how much work the negotiators have ahead of them.
Analysts say that even without a clear plan, what is most important now is that all sides keep talking.
Some trade experts caution against setting deadlines for progress. They say the Hong Kong meeting will be no more than a working session in which ministers will get a chance to better understand each others' positions in preparation for more substantial negotiations later on.