The U.S.-European Union "Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership" negotiations, which were launched last month, are the biggest consolation prize in the history of international trade liberalization. Since the end of World War II, the United States and Europe, as the world’s two economic superpowers, have led successive rounds of global negotiations that slashed import tariffs, removed quotas and greased the wheels of international commerce. The last and biggest round, which created the World Trade Organization in 1994, was, like the seven others before it, essentially a U.S.-EU agreement with the rest of the world along for the ride.
Few at the time knew it would be the last such ride. The United States and Europe tried again by launching the Doha Round negotiations in 2001, but this time they ran into stronger and richer countries -- China, India, Brazil and others -- who said no and meant it. As the Doha talks stalled, the United States and Europe went off to negotiate their own bilateral trade deals with more-willing partners. Over the past decade, the United States has sewn up 17 pacts with smaller countries like Peru, Colombia and Singapore, as well as a larger deal with South Korea; the EU has been perhaps even more ambitious, concluding deals with such countries as Mexico, Egypt, South Korea and, imminently, Canada, as well as initiating talks with bigger economies like India and Japan.
After holding out many years for a Doha revival, the decision by Washington, Brussels and the major European capitals to pursue a U.S.-EU free trade agreement is the final nail in the coffin of the old multilateral trading system. While the WTO will continue to function and resolve disputes, the decision by its two founders and guardians to launch out on their own is a resounding vote of no confidence in the organization’s ability to address the trade challenges of the 21st century.