U.S. Trade Chief Gets Few Backers On Doha Plan

During his first visit to the World Trade Organization, President Obama’s trade chief found little support for a U.S. plan to revive moves toward a global treaty.

GENEVA (AP) -- President Barack Obama's trade chief got a gracious reception from negotiators during his first visit to the World Trade Organization, but found little support for a U.S. plan to revive moves toward a global treaty stalled after eight years of often fractious talks.

Ron Kirk, the former Dallas mayor, said Wednesday he met with over half of the 153 national ambassadors at the WTO this week to hear their views on the Doha trade round -- an unusual diplomatic step for a Cabinet-level official.

He thanked diplomats and WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy for the "frank and candid, but useful, discussions." Still, he urged countries to come up with new ways for completing the talks launched in Doha, Qatar's capital, in 2001.

"We should all be willing to consider changes to the process that could put the negotiations on a more direct path to success," Kirk told a news conference. He said Washington does not want to start over and ignore progress that has been made, but stressed the need to "think about new paths to address the remaining issues."

Kirk repeated many of the mantras expressed during the eight years of negotiations under the administration of President George W. Bush: the need for new market opportunities for American exporters, better clarity on how far loopholes in agriculture and manufacturing would go, and lower trade barriers from fast-developing nations such as Brazil, China and India.

He declined to give specifics on the new direction the Obama administration would take, but trade officials and WTO observers say the United States and Canada have floated an idea to change the strategy of talks, which have suffered a number of debilitating collapses.

Part of the problem has been that negotiators have sought global formulas for cutting agricultural and manufacturing tariffs, with only a sketchy understanding of how they would translate into new market gains for exporters of everything from beef and poultry to cars and computers.

The U.S.-Canada approach, officials say, proposes to shift the focus to the end result instead of the formulas, meaning countries would have to negotiate one-on-one over how much to liberalize their markets. Such a change would favor rich countries with their large teams of lawyers, economists and industry support groups, over poorer nations that need to rally together at the WTO behind a common position.

"Nobody seems to be agreeing with it," said Ujal Singh Bhatia, India's WTO ambassador.

He said the underlying assumption was that Washington was looking for new ways to limit how much developing countries could adjust their tariffs to deal with sensitive farm products or a sudden surge of imports -- a reference to the issues rich and poor nations clashed over when the talks last collapsed in July.

"That is a strict no-no," Bhatia said.

The proposals floated by U.S. and Canada have also been greeted with skepticism from their occasional allies in the middle -- particularly farm exporting nations.

"This will not do the trick," said Guillermo Valles Galmez, Uruguay's ambassador, adding that such an approach would mean countries could find more loopholes to protect farm products from foreign competition.

Kirk said he found it "curious" that the Obama administration's change in tone and style from its predecessor has been "almost joyously celebrated" in discussions with other governments on national security, economics and other fronts, but at the WTO "we are being asked to stand still."

He said the U.S. was not "locked into any particular process" and wanted only that WTO members remain open to alternative approaches to reach a deal.

"This is not simply a matter of the United States showing up and saying here is the silver bullet that we have all been searching for," Kirk said.

Christopher Wenk, director of international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Kirk's visit sent a signal to WTO ambassadors eager to show their goodwill to the new Obama administration. But he acknowledged that their reticence to change could hinder hopes of a Doha revival.

"We need a different method," Wenk said. "I don't think it is feasible to pick up exactly where we left off.”