Never again. That was the sentiment I remember hearing over and over from developing country officials following the tumultuous completion of the Uruguay Round negotiations in 1993 that led to the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) two years later. Once again, most of them believed, the United States and the European Union had dictated the final terms of a global trade agreement and forced it down the throats of the rest of the world. These countries were determined to have far more say in the shape of any future deals.
For the past two decades, until this month’s modest agreement in Bali to adopt new “trade facilitation” measures, the developing countries have made good on that threat. They have insisted that any new global trade agreement, such as that pursued unsuccessfully over the past decade through the Doha Round, pay special attention to their needs and priorities in areas like agriculture, manufacturing and intellectual property rules. Their united opposition has made it impossible to conclude another big global trade round on terms acceptable to the U.S. and EU.
But the trade agenda that has emerged over the past several years is starting to look like “back to the future.” Through ambitious regional deals, the U.S. and the EU are reasserting the control they relinquished two decades ago, again putting themselves at the center, not of a single global trade agreement, but rather of an ambitious network of trade deals with global reach. Through these negotiations, the U.S. and EU are poised to establish a new set of trading rules that could last for a generation. The developing countries—even big ones like China, India and Brazil—may have little choice but to go along.