The 142-member World Trade Organization has reached a critical point in efforts to launch a new round of global trade negotiations. The trade body's director-general is warning that if new negotiations are not held soon, the WTO risks being considered irrelevant.
The last major round of World Trade Negotiations, the so-called Uruguay Round, conducted by the WTO's predecessor the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, ended successfully in 1993.
But attempts to launch another round to reduce more trade barriers have so far been unsuccessful.
In 1999 in Seattle, there was a spectacular failure to launch a new round. The ministers attending the Seattle meeting were unable to reach agreement on what the scope and agenda of fresh negotiations should be.
The impact of that disaster produced a resolve that it should not be repeated. But just more than three months before a WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar, there is still no consensus on the agenda.
At a meeting at WTO headquarters, Director-General Mike Moore, a New Zealander, warned representatives that failure to reach consensus would lead many to question the value of the WTO as a forum for negotiation.
One of several obstacles to agreement lies in the argument by developing countries that they have not yet received the market access and other benefits they were promised in the previous round, and they want preliminary assurances that this situation will not continue.
At a news conference after the meeting, Mr. Moore tackled this aspect of the crisis. "And there are those, dear friends, who argue there are inequities in the system, that things ought to change, that they have been locked out for too long," Mr. Moore said. "I have enormous sympathy for that argument, but it is my conviction the best way to assist those who are most marginalized is to begin a negotiation that takes all their issues into account."
But Mr. Moore pointed out that the needs of the most advanced economies also have to be taken into account. "I have said this before, and some do not like me saying it, but the major economies have needs to," he said. "And just because you happen to be in the top three or four major economic players that does not make you instantly wrong when you seek things. The new global rules have to take into account the realities of the new economy. And when you have three countries that represent over 60 percent of the world's imports, therefore jobs everywhere, they have some needs as well."
Mr. Moore said the WTO members would find out in the next two months whether it is possible to strike a balance.