WHEN A MEETING OF international trade ministers in Geneva collapsed last weekend, it wasn't just the latest disappointing failure by the World Trade Organization to produce an agreement in the Doha round of talks -- it may have been the last. Because it will take about a year to finalize any deal, and President Bush's authority to fast-track trade pacts expires in July 2007, this month is widely seen as a make-or-break deadline in the round. Yet all sides are locked in seemingly immovable stances.
Trade negotiators from Europe, the U.S. and the world's leading emerging economies have been talking past each other for years -- alternating between proposals that never quite engage the others and pointing fingers. Their cynicism is especially disappointing because this round of talks was meant to level the playing field for poorer countries, mainly by lifting developed nations' barriers to free trade in agricultural products. The Bush administration has floated a number of worthy proposals, but it might have done better in pressuring the recalcitrant Europeans -- the most egregious opponents of needed liberalization -- with a dramatic, unilateral move.
And why not? Who does the U.S. trade delegation represent when it refuses to budge on farm subsidies and market access? Certainly not American taxpayers or consumers. Farm subsidies cost taxpayers about $19 billion last year. For their money, consumers got the privilege of paying more for some food because farm supports (and quotas on some imports, such as sugar) distort markets.