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Doha stalemate: The end of trade multilateralism?


This article challenges conventional narratives that suggest that the travails in the Doha Round, the shift to bilateral free trade agreements, and the broader unfolding of the global crisis collectively presage the decline of either the WTO or the broader institution of multilateral trade. We question the extent to which recent trends can indeed be said to constitute a genuine crisis of trade multilateralism by reflecting upon the contradictory and ambiguous nature of the multilateralism of the past, and also upon how contemporary multilateralism has been framed with reference to it. Our main finding is that, in contrast to the many short and medium-term symptoms which tend to appear in the conventional story of multilateral decline, there is actually a far more worrying long-term trend which underpins the varied conflicts that characterise contemporary trade politics: the fundamental lack of a shared social purpose between the developed countries and the more powerful emerging countries on which a stable, equitable, and legitimate edifice of multilateral trade rules can be erected, institutionalised, and enhanced.

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1 Pascal Lamy, ‘Negotiations on the Doha Development Agenda: We Approach the Moment of Truth’ speech to the Committee on International Trade, European Parliament, Brussels, 23 March 2006.

2 Peter Sutherland quoted in Alan Beattie, ‘WTO Faces an Uncertain Future as its Negotiating System Seizes Up’, Financial Times (25 July 2006).

3 Edmund Conway, ‘Just like England, Doha Talks Fade Before the Final Stretch’, Daily Telegraph (25 July 2006).

4 Liam Halligan, ‘We Should Protest About the Death of Doha’, Sunday Telegraph (30 July 2006).

5 See, for example, Clive Crook, ‘The End of the WTO?’, The Atlantic (30 July 2008), available at: {} accessed 10 June 2012; Anu Bradford, ‘Future of the WTO: End of Multilateralism?’, University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog (24 February 2009), available at: {} accessed 10 June 2012.

6 Pascal Lamy, ‘Multilateralism is Struggling’, speech to the WTO Public Forum, ‘Is Multilateralism in Crisis?’, World Trade Organisation, Geneva, 24 September 2012.

7 See, for example, Figueredo, Reinaldo, ‘The Retreat of Multilateralism: The International Trading System on Crisis’, Third World Quarterly, 5:3 (1983), pp. 610–17.

8 Strange, Susan, ‘Protectionism and World Politics’, International Organization, 39:2 (1985), pp. 233–59, 243–4.

9 See Fred Bergsten, ‘The New Economics and U.S. Foreign Policy’, Foreign Policy, 50:Jan (1972), pp. 199–222; and ‘Echoes of the 1930s’, The Economist (5 January 1991).

10 Cox, Robert W., ‘Multilateralism and World Order’, Review of International Studies, 18:2 (1992), pp. 161–80.

11 Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, ‘Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organization’, UN 37th Session, Document A/37/1, Supplement No. 1 (September 1982).

12 Waldheim, Kurt, In the Eye of the Storm (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1980), p. 121.

13 Kofi Annan, speaking in 2003, and cited in Glennon, Michael, ‘Idealism at the UN’, Policy Review, 129: Feb/Mar (2005), p. 15.

14 Kratochwil, Friedrich, ‘The Genealogy of Multilateralism: Reflections on an Organizational Form and its Crisis’, in Newman, Edward, Thakur, Ramesh, and Tirman, John (eds), Multilateralism Under Challenge (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2006), pp. 139–59.

15 Keohane, Robert, ‘Multilateralism: An Agenda for Research’, International Journal, 45:Autumn (1990), p. 731.

16 On this point, see Ruggie, John, ‘Multilateralism: The Anatomy of an Institution’, International Organization, 46:3 (1992), pp. 561–98

17 See, for example, Hall, Peter, ‘Historical Institutionalism in Rationalist and Sociological Perspective’, in Mahoney, James and Thelen, Kathleen (eds), Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency and Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 204–23.

18 Muzaka, Valbona, ‘Linkages, Contests and Overlaps in the Global Intellectual Property Rights Regime’, European Journal of International Relations, 17:4 (2010), pp. 755–76.

19 See, for example Payne, Anthony, ‘How Many Gs are There in “Global Governance” After the Crisis? The Perspectives of the “Marginal Majority” of the World's States’, International Affairs, 86:3 (2010), pp. 729–40; Soederberg, Susanne, ‘The Politics of Representation and Financial Fetishism: The Case of the G20 Summits’, Third World Quarterly, 31:4 (2010), pp. 523–40; and Cammack, Paul, ‘The G20, The Crisis, and the Rise of Global Developmental Liberalism’, Third World Quarterly, 33:1 (2012), pp. 116.

20 Ormerod, Paul, ‘The Current Crisis and the Culpability of Macroeconomic Theory’, 21st Century Society, 5:1 (2010), pp. 518.

21 See Hay, Colin, ‘“Things Can Only Get Worse …”: The Political and Economic Significance of 2010’, British Politics, 5:4 (2010), pp. 391401; and ‘Pathology Without Crisis: The Strange Demise of the Anglo-Liberal Growth Model’, Government and Opposition, 46:1 (2011), pp. 1–31. See also Gore, Charles, ‘The Global Recession of 2009 in a Long-Term Development Perspective’, Journal of International Development, 22:6 (2010), pp. 714–38; Kessler, Oliver, ‘Sleeping with the Enemy? On Hayek, Constructivist Thought, and the Current Economic Crisis’, Review of International Studies, 38:2 (2012), pp. 275–99.

22 This is so despite the Bali Package agreement reached in December 2013, not least due to developments in the US suggesting, at least at the time of writing, that the Obama administration ‘fast-track’ trade negotiating authority is not likely to be forthcoming.

23 Scott, James and Wilkinson, Rorden, ‘What Happened to Doha in Geneva? Re-Engineering the WTO's Image While Missing Key Opportunities’, European Journal of Development Research, 22:2 (2010), pp. 141–53, 141.

24 Mattoo, Aaditya and Subramanian, Arvind, ‘From Doha to the Next Bretton Woods: A New Multilateral Trade Agenda’, Foreign Affairs, 88:1 (2009), pp. 1526, 15.

25 Ibid.

26 Ismail, Faizel, ‘Is the Doha Round Dead? What is the Way Forward?’, World Economics, 13:3 (2012), pp. 143–69.

27 Broadly speaking, NAMA covers a wide range of products – from processes relating to manufacturing, mining, fisheries, and forestry – which are not covered by prevailing agreements. These are crucial for a number of reasons: one is the fact that they account for a high proportion (up to 90 per cent) of global merchandise exports; another is that they are traditionally seen to be critical sectors in which selective protectionism and activist industrial policy can engender developmental transformations.

28 Martin Khor, ‘The Twists and Turns of the Doha Talks and the WTO’, South Bulletin, 68:October (2012), pp. 5–8; Ismail, Faizel, Reforming the World Trade Organization: Developing Countries in the Doha Round, CUTS International (Geneva, Switzerland, 2009).

29 Scott, James and Wilkinson, Rorden, ‘The Poverty of the Doha Round and the Least Developed Countries’, Third World Quarterly, 32:4 (2011), pp. 611–27, 623.

30 Ackerman, Frank and Gallagher, Kevin P., ‘The Shrinking Gains from Global Trade Liberalization in Computable General Equilibrium Models’, International Journal of Political Economy, 37:1 (2008), pp. 5077, 59.

31 Gallagher, Kevin P. and Wise, Timothy A., ‘Are There Large New Gains from Trade?’, Bridges Newsletter, 14:1 (2010), pp. 21–2.

32 Scott and Wilkinson, ‘Poverty of Doha Round’.

33 Benjamin J. Richardson, ‘From Doha to El Dorado: The World Trade Organization, Agricultural Liberalisation and the False Promise of Free Markets’, CSGR Working Papers, University of Warwick, UK (2010) available at: {} accessed 15 June 2012.

34 Cammack, ‘The G20, The Crisis’.

35 Scott and Wilkinson, ‘Poverty of the Doha Round’, p. 622.

36 Braz Baracuhy, ‘The Geopolitics of Multilateralism: The WTO Doha Round Deadlock, The BRICS, and the Challenges of Institutionalised Power Transitions’, Centre for Rising Powers Working Paper No. 4, Cambridge (2012), available at: {} accessed 20 June 2012.

37 See Heron, Tony, Pathways from Preferential Trade: The Politics of Trade Adjustment in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

38 World Trade Organisation (WTO) Website, ‘Regional Trade Agreements’, available at: {} accessed 10 June 2013.

39 James Kanter and Jack Ewing, ‘Running Start for a U.S.-Europe Trade Pact’, The New York Times (13 February 2013), available at: {} accessed 10 July 2013. For a critical discussion of the potential negative democratic implications, see George Monbiot, ‘This Transatlantic Trade Deal is a Full Frontal Assault on Democracy’, The Guardian (4 November 2013), available at: {} accessed 11 January 2014.

40 European Commission, ‘Global Europe: Competing in the World’ (Brussels: European Commission, 2006).

41 Heron, Tony and Siles-Brügge, Gabriel, ‘Competitive Liberalisation and the “Global Europe” Services and Investment Agenda: Locating the Commercial Drivers of the EU-ACP Economic Partnership Agreements’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 50:2 (2012), pp. 250–66. See also Siles-Brügge, Gabriel, Constructing European Union Trade Policy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

42 Heron and Siles-Brügge, ‘Competitive Liberalisation’.

43 Ibid.

44 Mattoo and Subramanian, ‘Doha to Next Bretton Woods’, p. 16.

45 Timothy A. Wise, ‘Doha Goes on Life Support’, Global Development and Environment Institute Commentary, (May 2011), p. 3, available at: {} accessed 10 June 2012.

46 Bishop, Matthew L., Heron, Tony, and Payne, Anthony, ‘Caribbean Development Alternatives and the European Union-CARIFORUM Economic Partnership Agreement’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 16:1 (2013), pp. 82110.

47 Drache, Daniel, ‘Reform at the s next for the WTO? A Second Life? A Socio-Political Analysis’, Oñati Socio-Legal Studies, 1:X (2011), pp. 122, 1.

48 The notion of a ‘Single Undertaking’ refers to the fact that an agreement in the Doha round is an indivisible package; until an accord is reached on all issues to the satisfaction of members, there is essentially no agreement.

49 Ismail, ‘Is Doha Dead?’

50 Indeed, an interesting comparative point here might be the contrast between the WTO and the IMF during the crisis. The latter has been distinctly more successful in crafting, relatively speaking, a radical and original response to the intellectual challenge presaged by events in 2008–onwards. See, for example, Grabel, Ilene, ‘Not Your Grandfather's IMF: Global Crisis, “Productive Incoherence”, and Developmental Policy Space’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 35:5 (2011), pp. 805–30.

51 Drache, ‘Reform at the Top’, p. 3.

52 Chang, Ha-Joon, Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective (London: Anthem, 2002).

53 Drache, ‘Reform at the Top’.

54 Evenett, Simon J., ‘Aid for Trade and the “Missing Middle” of the World Trade Organization’, Global Governance, 15:3 (2009), pp. 359–74, 359.

55 Wilkinson, Rorden, ‘Of Butchery and Bicycles: the WTO and the “Death” of the Doha Development Agenda’, The Political Quarterly, 83:2 (2012), pp. 395401.

56 Gabriel Siles-Brügge, ‘Explaining the Resilience of Free Trade: The Smoot–Hawley Myth and the Crisis’, Review of International Political Economy, iFirst (2013), pp. 1–40.

57 See Capling, Ann and Higgott, Richard, ‘Introduction: The Future of the Multilateral Trade System – What Role for the World Trade Organization?’, Global Governance, 15:3 (2009), pp. 313–25.

58 See Gamble, Andrew, ‘The Western Ideology’, Government and Opposition, 44:1 (2009), pp. 119.

59 Ruggie, ‘Multilateralism’, p. 595.

60 Ismail, ‘Reforming the WTO’, p. 149.

61 Patterson, Molly and Monroe, Kristen Renwick, ‘Narrative in Political Science’, Annual Review of Political Science, 1 (1998), pp. 315–31.

62 Friedland, R. and Alford, R. R., ‘Bringing Society Back In: Symbols, Practices and Institutional Contradictions’, in Powell, W. W. and DiMaggio, P. J. (eds), The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 232–63; Scott, W. R., Institutions and Organizations (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001); Armstrong, E. and Bernstein, M., ‘Culture, Power and Institutions: A Multi-Institutional Politics Approach to Social Movements’, Sociological Theory, 26:1 (2008), pp. 7499.

63 Ibid. See also Benson, J. K., ‘Organizations: A Dialectic View’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 22 (1977), pp. 121; and Muzaka, Valbona, ‘Contradictions, Frames and Reproductions: The Emergence of the WIPO Development Agenda’, Review of International Political Economy, 20 (2012), pp. 215–39.

64 Ruggie, ‘Multilateralism’, p. 571.

65 Ruggie borrows the idea of ‘diffused reciprocity’ from Keohane, Robert, ‘Reciprocity in International Relations’, International Organization, 40:1 (1986), pp. 127.

66 With specific reference to the WTO, see also Wilkinson, Rorden, Multilateralism and the World Trade Organization (London: Routledge, 2000).

67 Hall, Peter, ‘Historical Institutionalism in Rationalist and Sociological Perspective’, in Mahoney, James and Thelen, Kathleen (eds), Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency and Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 204–23.

68 The most important element of the 1860 Anglo-French treaty was the inclusion of the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) clause. It rapidly cascaded into a series of bilateral trade agreements between other European countries, all linked by the inclusion of an unconditional MFN clause. See Irwin, D., ‘Multilateral and Bilateral Trade Policies in the World Trading System: A Historical Perspective’, in Anderson, K. and Hoekman, B. (eds), The Global Trading System 1 – Genesis of the GATT (London: I. B. Tauris, 2002).

69 Kratochwil, ‘The Genealogy of Multilateralism’.

70 Hudec, R. E., The GATT Legal System and World Trade Diplomacy (Salem: MA, Butterworth Legal Publishers, 1990), p. 57.

71 Irwin, ‘Multilateral and Bilateral Trade Polities’; Dam, Kenneth, The GATT: Law and International Economic Organization (Chicago, IL: the University of Chicago Press, 1970).

72 Wilkinson, Rorden, The WTO, Crisis and the Governance of Global Trade (London: Routledge, 2006); Jackson, J. H., ‘Dispute Settlement and the WTO: Emerging Problems’, in WTO Secretariat (ed.), From GATT to the WTO: The Multilateral Trading System in the New Millennium (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000).

73 China withdrew in 1950 following the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949; Liberia in 1953; and Lebanon and Syria after the dissolution of their customs union in 1951.

74 The only conditions were that they freed ‘substantially all trade’ among their members and did not erect higher barriers to trade with the rest of the world than before. See Dam, ‘The GATT’.

75 The 1947 Protocol of Provisional Application of the GATT also contained the ‘grandfather clause’ that provided for Part II of the GATT to be applied only to the fullest extent not inconsistent with existing legislation, that is, legislation that existed before 30 October 1947. However, not all pre-existing legislation was exempt; it was generally understood that it included only legislation and measures based on legislation that imposed on the executive authority requirements that could not be modified by executive action.

76 The current Doha Round contains a mandate to clarify and improve the rules applying to PTAs; a provisional Transparency Mechanism for Regional Trade Agreements was established via a WTO Decision on 14 Dec 2006 See: {}.

77 Dam, ‘The GATT’.

78 In a case of mass-discrimination, a total of 14 countries (out of around 39) invoked this clause when refusing to apply the GATT to Japan during its accession in the 1950s.

79 Dam, ‘The GATT’.

80 Hudec, ‘The GATT Legal System’.

81 Wilkinson, ‘The WTO, Crisis’.

82 Lipson, Charles, ‘The Transformation of Trade: the Sources and Effects of Regime Change’, International Organization, 36:2 (1982), pp. 417–55.

83 Wilkinson, ‘The WTO, Crisis’; Dam, ‘The GATT’.

84 Hudec, ‘The GATT Legal System’; Dam, ‘The GATT’.

85 Baldwin, R. E., ‘Pragmatism versus Principle in GATT Decision-Making: a Brief Historical Perspective’, in WTO Secretariat (ed.), From GATT to the WTO: The Multilateral Trading System in the New Millennium (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000).

86 Dam, ‘The GATT’; Wilkinson, ‘The WTO, Crisis’.

87 The idea of the GSP emerged at UNCTAD II in 1968; the GATT enacted the GSP by adopting a ten-year waiver to the MFN principle (Article 1) in 1971 that eventually became a permanent waiver through the so-called ‘Enabling Clause’ (Decision on Differential and More Favorable Treatment, Reciprocity and Fuller Participation of Developing Countries) of the Tokyo Round in 1979. The Clause also permitted developing countries to enter into preferential trade agreements that do not strictly meet the GATT criteria; as of 2003, around 19 regional agreements between developing countries, including the Andean Pact, MERCOSUR, ASEAN have been notified under the ‘Enabling Clause’ (see: {}.

88 Wilkinson, ‘The WTO, Crisis’.

89 Hindley, Brian, ‘Different and More Favorable Treatment – and Graduation’, in Finger, Michael and Olechowski, Andrzej (eds), The Uruguay Round: A Handbook on the Multilateral Trade Negotiations (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 1987).

90 For instance, US pressure that it would withdraw its GSP to certain developing countries who were, incidentally, resistant to the inclusion of intellectual property rights in the Uruguay Round; the same pressure was applied via the US Special 301 route.

91 Mark S. Manger and Kenneth C. Shadlen, ‘Political Trade Dependence and North-South Trade Agreements’, International Studies Quarterly, iFirst (2013), pp. 1–13.

92 Dam, ‘The GATT’, p. 345.

93 Bhagwati, Jagdish, Termites in the Trading System: How Preferential Agreements Undermine Free Trade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

94 Dam, ‘The GATT’.

95 Especially because the losing party had the right to veto the outcome of the dispute. See Lipson, Transformation of Trade’; Dunoff, Jeffrey, ‘The Death of the Trade Regime’, The European Journal of International Law, 10 (1999), pp. 733–55.

96 Ruggie, John, ‘International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order’, International Organization, 36:2 (1982), pp. 379415.

97 Ibid., p. 398.

98 Howse, Robert, ‘From Politics to Technocracy-and Back Again: the Fate of the Multilateral Trading Regime’, The American Journal of International Law, 96:1 (2002), pp. 94117.

99 Ruggie, ‘International Regimes’, p. 413; Lang, Andrew, ‘Reconstructing Embedded Liberalism: John Gerard Ruggie and Constructivist Approaches to the Study of the International Trade Regime’, Journal of International Economic Law, 9:1 (2006), pp. 81116.

100 Wilkinson, ‘The WTO, Crisis’.

101 Srinivasan, T. N., Developing Countries in the World Trading System: From GATT, 1947 to the Third Ministerial Meeting of WTO, High-level Symposium on Trade and Development, WTO, Geneva (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), p. 1054.

102 Kratochwil, ‘Genealogy of Multilateralism’.

103 Consensus was not defined in the GATT provisions, but it came to be the modus operandi of decision-making, despite provisions for voting. Virtually all GATT decisions (waivers and accessions aside) were taken by consensus. See Patterson, G. and Patterson, L., ‘The Road from GATT to MTO’, Minnesota Journal of Global Trade, 3:1 (1994), pp. 35–9.

104 Steinberg, Richard, ‘In the Shadow of Law or Power? Consensus-based Bargaining and Outcomes in the GATT/WTO’, International Organization, 56:2 (2002), pp. 339–74.

105 Ibid., p. 357.

106 Rieger, Elmar and Leibfried, Stephan, ‘Welfare State Limits to Globalization’, Politics and Society, 26:3 (1998), pp. 363–90.

107 Ruggie, ‘International Regimes’, p. 413; Lang, ‘Reconstructing Embedded Liberalism’.

108 Kratochwil, ‘Genealogy of Multilateralism’.

109 Martin Khor, ‘Analysis of the Doha Negotiations and the Functioning of the World Trade Organization’, South Centre, Research Paper, Geneva, Switzerland (30 May 2010).

110 Daniel Drache and Marc D. Froese, ‘Deadlock in the Doha Round: The Long Decline of Trade Multilateralism’, Working Paper (2007), p. 33, available at: {} accessed 10 June 2012.

111 Wilkinson, Rorden, ‘Language, Power and Multilateral Trade Negotiations’, Review of International Political Economy, 16:4 (2009), pp. 597619.

112 Ismail, ‘Is Doha Dead?’

113 Khor, ‘Twists and Turns’.

114 See Ministerial Declaration by Friends of Development, 15 December 2011, WT/MIN(11)/17.

115 Khor, ‘Analysis of Doha’, p. 38.

116 Ruggie, ‘Multilateralism’.

117 See, for example, the declaration by the Friends of Development, 15 December 2011, WT/MIN(11)/17.

118 We are not necessarily claiming a direct causality here, but that these problems have worsened during the same period that trade and finance liberalisation rules have become the norm warrants a cautious rather than business-as-usual approach.

119 For the former, see Jeffrey C. Schott, ‘The Doha Dilemma: Implications for Korea and the Multilateral Trading System’, Conference paper presented at the KITA-PIIE International Conference, Seoul, 26 September 2011, p. 4; for the latter, see Rodrik, Dani, ‘Free Trade Optimism: Lessons from the Battle in Seattle’, Foreign Affairs, 82:3 (2003) pp. 135140.

120 Siles-Brügge, ‘Smoot–Hawley myth and the crisis’.

* The authors would like to thank three anonymous reviewers, along with Faizel Ismail, Tony Payne, Ben Richardson and Gabriel Siles-Brügge, for their insightful and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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