A challenge for the Millennium

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The Seattle agenda goes beyond launching new trade negotiations and setting the WTO’s programme and priorities for the future. It will be seen as a test of confidence in the WTO and a sign of international commitment to trade liberalisation. It will influence the direction and credibility of the world trading system as we enter a new and uncertain century.

Nobody can pretend to know what the results of the trade round will be. What I can say with absolute certainty is that success or failure will ultimately depend on international leadership, not least on the political will of the United States and Europe. As Oscar Wilde might have said, the only thing worse than the big guys getting together to settle things, is when they don’t get together to settle things.

We all know the challenges ministers face. The list of issues is already longer than the Uruguay Round agenda, and many of the new issues reach inside borders, raising complex questions about the way economies are organised in an integrated world.

But the complexity of these challenges should not obscure a more fundamental reality – the WTO is becoming, if it is not already, a major pillar of the global economy. The number and diversity of interests are also larger. No longer a cosy club of industrialised countries, the WTO is a global system of 134 members – with China, Russia and 29 other economies queuing to join. If the Seattle agenda is daunting, it is a reflection of the political importance which countries now attach to this system, and their growing reliance on open world markets and international trade. After all, we know from experience that’s how we get more jobs and income to pay for our social agenda. It is also a reflection of the pressing need to co-ordinate and reinvent policies for an integrated world. These challenges are already with us. They will be on the table at the Millenium talks whether we put them there or not. And they will demand answers.

Let me list the priorities. The first one has to be trade liberalisation. The Uruguay Round addressed the trade challenge of the early 1980s. We now need to address the challenges of 2000 and beyond if the WTO is to remain relevant and effective. WTO members are already committed to negotiations in agriculture, services, and intellectual property as part of their Uruguay Round undertakings. These subjects alone would add up to a substantial round. With talks on agriculture and services alone, 80% of world economic activity would be involved.

There are now many proposals to broaden the agenda, because the world economy has moved on. At Punta del Este no one had heard of the Internet. There was no e-commerce. Most countries agree on the need to bring industrial goods into the scope of the negotiations and to address the difficulties many countries face in implementing their existing commitments. A more challenging issue is whether to include certain “new issues” in the negotiations as well – such as investment, competition policy, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation. Future WTO work on trade and the environment – and possibly labour standards – is potentially the most contentious issue of all.

The second priority is integrating the developing countries into the trading system. The developing world is not threatened by the process of globalisation. Its nations are threatened by being left outside of it – on the margins, and slipping further behind. Trade is their bridge to the 21st century. With it comes access not only to markets, but to investment, technology, and know-how. Without it, the dream of

development will remain out of reach. There is no point encouraging these countries to embrace trade and openness, and then slamming the door firmly shut. The next century should be driven by development that raises living standards everywhere and produces more customers and jobs.

Third, making the global trading system truly global – by bringing China, Russia and the other candidates inside as soon as possible. China alone is already the world’s third largest economy, the fifth largest trader. China needs an open trading system to realise its vast potential. Under the right conditions, enlargement will strengthen the multilateral system, not dilute it.

Binding links

The fourth priority I see is that of building bridges in global policy-making. Integration is blurring issues, as well as borders – raising important questions about the linkages between the trade system and the environment, health standards, human rights and other issues. How to protect endangered species and promote sustainable development? How to preserve cultural identities in an age of borderless communications? And what about poverty eradication, reducing inequalities, and advancing labour standards? The WTO cannot provide all the answers to these questions. But nor can we turn our back on these concerns and pretend that they are someone else’s problem.

Finding solutions will not be simple. Globalisation is transforming peoples lives around the world – and in changing their lives, it raises profound anxiety, even fear about jobs, incomes, social standards, science, and the environment. Trade will continue to be at the centre of this debate, because trade is one of the most visible forces binding economies, peoples and issues together. One cannot – and should not – expect any less.

* Article based on a speech "Seattle: What’s at Stake?" given by Mike Moore to the Transatlantic Business Dialogue, Berlin, October 29, 1999. For the full text, please visit the WTO site

©OECD Observer No 219, December 1999 

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