Global trade negotiations may well proceed more slowly in the
aftermath of the World Trade Organization's collapsed talks in
Cancun, Mexico, earlier this month. But they are also likely to
proceed more equitably.
As the WTO's 148 members brace for their next session, now
scheduled for December, it is already clear that the sudden
emergence of a coalition of 22 developing nations has turned the
negotiating landscape between rich and poor countries into one that
more closely resembles a level playing field.
For now, the Group of 22 intends to remain focused on the opening
of global markets for farm products - the issue that divided rich
and poor at Cancun and prompted the group to walk out on Sept. 14.
Viewed more broadly, however, the "G-22" reflects the increasing
assertiveness of developing nations - not only in the WTO but in
other multilateral organizations, including the UN.
"It's too early to tell what the G-22's larger agenda will be, or
even if we will have one," says Rubens Barbosa, Brazil's ambassador
to Washington and a prime mover behind the group's formation. "But
the political, economic, and trade circumstances are different now.
There's a new balance of power, and the US and the European Union
are finally going to have to face us."
Reflecting this new environment, the World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund began considering ways to enhance the
influence of developing nations at their annual meeting in Dubai
shortly after the WTO talks failed. At the urging of the EU, the WTO
itself may now review its procedures in order to save the current
round of negotiations, launched in Doha, Qatar, two years ago.
Ironically, the WTO is among the most democratic of the
multilateral or- ganizations. It operates on the basis of one
country, one vote, and - unlike the UN - no member has the right to
a veto. In practice, however, the US, Japan, and the advanced
nations of Europe tend to control the agenda and overpower
developing nations with skilled trade experts and superior
negotiating tactics. While Brazil and China have cultivated
expertise of their own, many other developing countries are too poor
to afford effective representation at the WTO.
In Cancun, the G-22 coalition sought to keep the meeting focused
on import barriers and industry subsidies that distort global trade
in agricultural products. Collectively, wealthy nations spend some
$300 billion a year to subsidize farmers who would otherwise be
unable to compete in world markets.
African cotton growers had a specific complaint. The US now
spends $3.6 billion annually on cotton subsidies; with almost a
third of US cotton production exported, American farmers claim about
40 percent of the global market. Because they are so heavily
subsidized, they also depress world prices by about a quarter.
To deflect the developing countries' position, the rich countries
offered only vague commitments on farm subsidies and import