US Recalibrates Doha Talks?

Earlier this week the Bush administration announced the redeployment of their chief trade official, the United States Trade Representative, Robert Portman. The USTR is akin to the minister of trade in most other WTO Member countries. Ambassador Portman leaves the USTR post after less than a year at the helm, and will probably be best remembered for his effective support of the US cotton lobby in the face of developing country interests in the Hong Kong phase of the Doha Rounds Negotiations.

There is an emerging sense in the trade field that the removal of Portman is not a good sign just 2 weeks before the April 31 WTO deadline on agricultural modalities. Despite Bush’s words of support, the President seems to be visibly concerned at the Gallup opinion poll in the US this week which shows that 2/3 Americans believe that freer trade will hurt US jobs. It seems that Bush is turning his focus to domestic issues and the Doha Agenda is being down prioritized. While it is true that the USTR is a big organization, the new USTR, Susan Schwab, while being a trade lawyer, old agriculture negotiator and Portman’s former second in charge; does not hold the same political clout as Portman does. In addition, the timing of the change is certainly indicative of a greater overarching political dynamic in the US, and a less than subtle signal to other WTO Members as to the priority that the US is assigning to the multilateral trade agenda at this crucial time.

Trade Advisor Hilton Zunckel, commented today from Geneva that ‘In my opinion this move, together with the weak progress thus far this week in the Special Negotiating Session of the WTO Committee on Agriculture, will see the negotiators miss the 31 April 2006 agri deadlines set in Hon Kong, and I would further speculate that the Ministerial Meeting for the end of the month will likely fizzle out. It seems to me that the Doha Round needs a solid dose of Red Bull at this stage.’

Zunckel is currently in Geneva providing legal support to the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries in advance of the important agriculture deadlines set in Hong Kong for the end of April 2006.