Like ‘Waiting for Godot,’ WTO Awaits Next US Move

By | May 8, 2009

Most countries are ready to finish the long-running Doha round of world trade talks, but all bets are off until the Obama administration determines how to proceed, a group of visiting diplomats from developing nations said Thursday.

The administration of President Barack Obama is still mulling how to work through the trade talks, which U.S. farm groups and manufacturers have criticized as requiring the United States to give up more than it gains.

“Everybody’s waiting for the U.S. — it’s like waiting for Godot,” said one diplomat, referring to the Samuel Beckett play where two characters wait in vain for a third to arrive.

The diplomats spoke at a lunch hosted by the National Foreign Trade Council on condition they not be identified.

They said they received “mixed messages” during their Washington visit about the U.S. position on the talks, which launched in 2001 with the goal of helping poor countries prosper through trade.

On the one hand, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and senior trade lawmaker Charles Rangel, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, spoke positively about Doha and told the diplomats they don’t want to “unravel” progress made on the agreement thus far, the group said.

But other Washington groups and think tanks said trade was not a priority for the United States because of the economic crisis, and some continued to express reservations.

“I don’t understand what’s going on here,” a diplomat said.

If the U.S. government decided to push forward, a deal could be concluded this year, he said, noting he was not confident that would happen.

Kirk will make his first trip to WTO headquarters in Geneva next week, where the nuances of his comments will be closely parsed for clues about the U.S. position, diplomats said.

Kirk’s outgoing attitude could help create a positive atmosphere for talks to move forward, one diplomat said. The Obama administration is enjoying a honeymoon period around the world, although it will be difficult for the government to live up to high international expectations, he said.

Another diplomat said he thought it would take a great deal of hard work to come to an agreement on Doha, and said participants needed to rein in expectations for a quick deal.

However, he said countries needed to work quickly lest “neo-protectionism” take root in some countries, while others instead pour their efforts into bilateral deals.

A conclusion to the deal would be a clear rejection of protectionist measures that could exacerbate the global recession, another diplomat said.

“The best medicine against (the economic downturn) is to conclude the Doha development round,” he said. “I think that most countries are ready to open markets.”

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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