Doha Hurrah

Wall Street Journal Editorial
November 16, 2001

It wasn't pretty. Politics never is. But after seven years of waiting, and six days of near round-the-clock negotiations, the world's trading nations this week launched a new round of global free-trade talks. Now if the U.S. Congress can be as enlightened as, say, Namibia, trade can resume its historic role as an engine of prosperity.

Doha is a big deal because it overcomes one of the two large trade debacles of the late 1990s. That was the prattle in Seattle, where protesters in the streets, and protectionists in the suites, scuttled the trade round that Bill Clinton wanted to launch. "We have removed the stain of Seattle," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, who led the U.S. Doha delegation, said pointedly this week.

The second fiasco was Mr. Clinton's failure to persuade Congress to give him the authority to negotiate free-trade deals. Every modern President has had such power, but it expired during the 1990s and Mr. Clinton couldn't overcome Democratic Party opposition in the House to regain it. His attempt to appease the AFL-CIO by imposing U.S. labor standards on the Third World is one reason Seattle blew up.

Doha revives free-trade's political momentum by building a new pro-trade consensus that includes most of Africa and Latin America. Allied to the U.S., these nations helped to outflank protectionists in India, Brazil and France. A specific triumph was the agreement to discuss phasing out all farm subsidies. This has long been a goal of the developing world, which could compete with rich Europeans and Japanese if not for subsidies and tariffs that produce $2 apples and mountains of cheese.

The U.S. also wisely put its own anti-dumping laws on the negotiating table. These are laws that impose tariffs on such commodities as steel, allegedly to compensate for "dumping" below cost but usually for no other reason than political pressure. Such laws are a brazen contradiction to U.S. claims to believe in free trade, and they had to be on the table to make any talks credible.

Mr. Zoellick's concession to ease U.S. drug patents makes us more nervous, because property rights are a bedrock of global trade. This effort is usually pitched as compassion for countries ravaged by AIDS, but exceptions for public-health emergencies already exist. The real drivers here were India's generic drug makers, who want to poach off U.S. research, and Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology, which fears some American business might actually make money. (St. Ralph prefers Cisco to Merck in his own stock portfolio.) Neither one is known for coming up with cures for AIDS or any other global scourges. But at least the drug industry says it can live with the new rules.

What we don't know yet is whether the U.S. Congress will now follow Mr. Bush's lead. A vote on trade promotion authority planned for the House this week was postponed for lack of a majority. Republicans from farm states are pouting because Mr. Bush doesn't want to sign their $171 billion subsidy boondoggle. But U.S. farmers are as competitive as any in the world and so should love the Doha agenda.

Democrats who know better, such as New York's Charlie Rangel, are also pounding on their high chairs because they say they weren't consulted enough. This is the same Mr. Rangel who is the co-sponsor of a useful trade-opening bill for the Andes region that will be voted on today. On trade authority, Mr. Rangel has to make a choice: Side with Pat Buchanan and Big Labor, or go with the poor countries of Africa and elsewhere that after Doha see a clear path to progress in freer trade.

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