Monday, March 20, 2006

Last Guy at the Dance

Wayla-guy tells me that my blog volume is slipping. It's true. The risk of a substantive blog, rather than a completely anonymous personal blog, is that there may not be much going on. It's not that there have not been developments in customs law, its just that none have been all that interesting. If this were an entirely personal blog, I'd tell the world that I got my bike back from the shop and I'm ready for another season of commuting as soon as the weather cooperates. I'd also mention that I am in deep lust over a Felt F3c. It seems the folks at Felt can cram more carbon and better components into a bike at a lower price point than just about anyone. I'd also mention that I pulled the cover off my boat. A sure sign of spring.

But, that's not why we're here, is it?

How about this: Has anyone noticed that the WTO is starting to look a lot like that awkward kid with bad skin who no one wants on their kickball team? This is the same kid who ends up guarding the punch bowl at the dance because no one will ask him or her to actually dance. I don't know those kids personally, mind you. But, I hear they exist.

Why does the WTO look like an awkward loser? Take a look at the US dance card. We have free trade agreements with Canada, Mexico, Singapore, Chile, Australia, Jordan, Israel, Morocco, and much of Central America. We are also frantically flirting with Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Peru, and others. The primary objective of all this heavy breathing is the reduction of trade barriers between the parties and the imposition of formal rules to manage trade including dispute resolution (or maybe just to do favors for our international friends).

Funny thing, the job of the WTO is the reduction of trade barriers between the parties and the imposition of formal rules to manage trade including dispute resolution. Of course, the problem is that the WTO brings with it a certain amount of baggage. Generally, that baggage is the big economies namely the European Union, Japan, Brazil, and others. These are the countries where the US has actual trade issues of importance. It is these countries that present serious questions regarding agricultural subsidies and other issues. So, the difficulty in reaching a WTO-level agreement to reduce trade barriers and improve transparency comes from the big economies (and blocs of smaller economies).

So, the current US strategy appears to be to simply avoid those problems by cutting deals that can be cut. This is great for the countries involved because they will have expanded access to the US market. US investors will generally get better protection from unfair governmental action and US exports might see some increased trade. That's all good, but it is clearly the low hanging fruit.

Don't get me wrong, the FTA with Morocco is all well and good. But, it is not going to make much of a difference to the US economy. In the 15 years I have been in this practice, no one ever called me upset that they had no access to the Moroccan market.

If I were the WTO right now, I'd be headed to the dermatologist and the gym. The Doha round has not produced much in the way of important developments. The world is filled with people suspicious or hostile to globalization as a matter of principle. And, the WTO itself is hampered (if that is the right word) by its very purpose, which is to be a global organization. But all these bilateral or multilateral deals undermine the usefulness of the WTO as an entity. As long as the US, in particular, seems uninterested in the larger international stage provided by the WTO, the organization will look more like Urkel than the king of cool.

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