Participants at a conference in Washington Thursday examined prospects for re-starting the stalled global negotiations on trade liberalization. Those talks stalled last September during a session in Cancun, Mexico. While there is some optimism, participants are under no illusion that the task will be easy.
Earlier this month U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick notified trade officials from over 140 countries that the United States wants to get the talks back on track. Nearly four months after the failure at Cancun, Mr. Zoellick's proposal has been positively received.
In February, the U.S. official will travel to several developing countries to better understand their priorities. The curtailed negotiations, known as the Doha Round, were launched in Qatar in 2001.
Chris Padilla, an assistant to Mr. Zoellick, says as at Cancun, the United States is willing to consider a complete end to the agricultural subsidies, something demanded by key developing countries.
"In fact, they [an end to subsidies] were on the table [at Cancun], sitting there waiting to be cut," he said. "We had spent two years doing domestic spade-work with the Congress and the farm community to be able to get to the point of offering to eliminate all agricultural export subsidies and substantially reduce domestic supports."
But Rubens Barbosa, Brazil's ambassador to Washington and a key player in the trade talks, is skeptical about U.S. intentions. He told the conference that a Brazilian organized bloc of developing countries [the Group of 20] - blamed by many for wrecking the Cancun meeting - remains suspicious that the United States and European Union are trying to work out their own deal on agriculture.
"It will be very difficult to go ahead without reaching for the G-20 and looking into our perspective," Mr. Barbosa said. "It will be impossible because in the G-20 you have Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, the big agricultural producers [among developing countries] in the world."
Mr. Padilla and his American colleagues in turn are skeptical about the G-20, believing that they seek one-way concessions from rich countries. That obstinance, he says, was on full display in Cancun.
"The principal cause of the collapse [at Cancun] was that some major developing economies wanted to pocket our bold offers on goods and services without offering to open their own markets in return," he said.
But overall, participants are cautiously optimistic about a resumption of the trade talks. However, few believe that given the differences between rich and poor countries, the deadline for completing the Doha round by the end of this year can be met.