Trade talks are stuck in past

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The surest way to confirm if anyone in Washington, D.C. is telling you the truth about trade is to watch their lips: If they move, they’re stretching the blanket one way or the other.

Of course, not many lips have moved on trade last year or this year.

Not a priority

Indeed, on the White House to-do list, trade talks appears somewhere between “Reorganize United Nations” and “Reorganize closet.”

That might be a tad unfair. After all, President Obama did choose Ron Kirk as the nation’s trade representative. Ron… ah… who?

You know, Ron Kirk, former two-term mayor of Dallas, former lobbyist, former nothing-to-do-with-trade guy.

Given the staleness of the nearly decade-long global trade talks, maybe that’s a good thing.

Background

Begun in November 2001, the Doha Development Round was to negotiate lower trade barriers around the world so developing economies might get their growing feet in bigger, richer markets.

Those feet, however, got crunched in 2008 when (after years of dodging of rocks, bottles and protests from anti-globalization forces) the European Union, Japan and the U.S. shut down talks in a standoff over their domestic ag subsidies and developing nations’ non-tariff trade barriers.

An American presidential election and a near-global economic meltdown kept the talks on ice for a year more.

No one’s talking

Now the World Trade Organization wants to restart talks. So far, initial efforts have met widespread yawns.

For its part, the U.S. remains slow to re-engage until fast developing nations, like China, India and Brazil, offer more market access in return for American farm subsidy cuts.

It’s deja vu all over again.

Trade watchers like Tim Wise and Kevin Gallagher, both at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, suspect many of the old negotiating approaches employed by the WTO and its bigger members will keep Doha from yielding anything for any nation.

For instance, wrote the duo in late 2009, despite “a global financial crisis brought on by weak regulation of the financial markets…. the WTO prattles on about further deregulation of financial services.”

Any bets that will happen?

Ag free traders

Also, most mainline U.S. ag groups continue to stand pat on their 2001 — or 2003, 2005 or 2008; the year matters little — approaches to both bilateral and multilateral trade talks: Open your markets or we’ll huff and puff and blow your barn down.

On May 3, the usual ag free traders gathered just outside Washington to move their lips in unison, again, on the importance of “free trade agreements for agriculture and encourage President Obama and Congress to ratify FTAs (free trade agreements) with South Korea, Panama and Columbia.”

Four weeks later, 16 tea leaf-reading U.S. senators repeated the call. The two key reasons cited by the senators were:

1.) Europe is negotiating trade deals with “a number of Central American countries” and 2.) the FTAs would increase American gross domestic product — pegged at $14.3 trillion in 2009 — by $16.6 billion.

While $16.6 billion is a nice chunk of business, it also matches the trade deficit — $16.5 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — compiled by the U.S. with China in the short month of February 2010.

Net trade

That’s the problem with any talk about renewed trade negotiations; no one ever talks about net trade, all everyone ever talks about is increased trade. The two are not the same.

Look at it this way; while you can get a drink of water from fire hose, chances are pretty good the sip will cost you a lip. Not smart, right? So let’s stop talking about free trade and start talking about smart trade; trade where we actually don’t lose money, jobs or global leadership.

Until then, watch those lips. If they move, well, you know…

(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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