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Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina and the land of football and tango, will host the biennial trade ministerial summit of the World Trade Organization (WTO) next year. If all goes well, the famous Argentinian capital could serve two major objectives: a formal burial of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) trade negotiations and a launch of the Buenos Aires round of trade negotiations focusing on e-commerce and stringent disciplines for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Early indications of what is going to happen at the eleventh ministerial meeting in South America came from almost identical statements made by the global trade elite.

New trade deals will fructify at the WTO, The Economist said in its edition dated 1 October. WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo, it says, “can imagine the WTO brokering another global trade deal, but only when expectations have been managed down from Doha". So the Doha Round could find its mortuary in Buenos Aires.

“As for the WTO, it will for now push ‘plurilateral’ deals of its own, which embrace enough of WTO members to be significant but which avoid the quagmire of having to secure the agreement of all its 164 members," The Economist wrote.

“Indeed, the failure of TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) agreements", according to the global mouthpiece of liberal trade and globalization, “could provide an opportunity for the WTO to re-emerge as the main forum for the trade-liberalization agenda". Indian trade policymakers, who are increasingly devaluing their role at the WTO in preference of regional trade agreements, ought to pay attention to these signals coming from different quarters.

Writing in the same magazine on 8 October, US President Barack Obama made a strong case for technological advances fuelled by “the Internet, mobile broadband and devices, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced materials, improvements in energy efficiency and personalized medicine". Obama suggested that the Internet and the new transformational technologies must now contribute to boosting productivity for overcoming the crisis in global capitalism.

“Lifting productivity and wages also depends on creating a global race to the top in rules for trade," the US President argued. Despite existential opposition for concluding the TPP and the TTIP agreements in the face of an anti-trade and anti-globalization tirade in the US and other countries, Obama has decided to keep pushing for these two agreements, as they will “level the playing field for workers and businesses alike".

Close on the heels of those pronouncements from Obama and the US administration, the WTO director-general has also contributed his mite when he made a strong case for trade in a keynote lecture he delivered at the National Press Club in Washington DC on 7 October. Denouncing the growing anti-trade and protectionist sentiments, almost on the lines of what President Obama wrote in The Economist, Azevedo underscored the need for a “global, systemic response" along with “active and creative (domestic) approaches" for labour market policies.

Azevedo, who in his earlier avatar as Brazil’s trade envoy had championed the cause of 19th and 20th century trade issues such as reform in global agriculture, rules of origin, and even exchange-rate misalignment and trade remedies (5 November 2012), has now embarked on 21st century trade issues that are at the heart of tech giants in the US and other industrialized countries. The director-general suggested e-commerce (apparently worth around $22 trillion) and SMEs as the appropriate candidates for the global trade reform.

Of the three issues he highlighted in his lecture, two areas—“how to harness the power of e-commerce to support inclusiveness" and “how to ensure support for small and medium enterprises"—are what Washington and Brussels are pushing hard at the WTO—despite a total disconnect with half of the world and its poor inhabitants.

The third issue—“how to open goods and services trade to new players in developing and developed countries"—seems like crocodile tears when Azevedo knows fully well that little will happen on this count. For example, India’s concept paper on trade facilitation in services which seeks to eliminate the bottlenecks and barriers in global trade in services is already trashed by the US, Canada and other western countries. Even if they move an inch on New Delhi’s proposal, they will ask for a pound of flesh from India to agree to e-commerce and disciplines on SMEs as a trade-off. They will also turn their back on the so-called permanent solution for public stockholding programmes in developing countries. India must watch out that it is going to be targeted for its domestic farm subsidies after the US succeeds in its trade dispute against the Chinese subsidies for rice, wheat, and corn.

Puzzlingly, Azevedo’s emphasis on e-commerce to support inclusiveness coincided with calls to “connect the world" by Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, and “a cloud for global good" in which Microsoft’s Satya Nadella wants “the computing clouds to be inclusive"—to promote their technology enterprises worth tens of billions of dollars.

In short, the bread-and-butter issues that could address real hunger—such as the public food security programmes in the least-developed and developing countries, or industrialization programmes which are smothered by WTO rules such as the Trade-Related Investment Measures Agreement as witnessed in the recent US solar dispute against India—are nearly pushed into the coffin. Little wonder that the Orwellian doublespeak by the director-general and his supporters in the Western world has created an anti-trade sentiment and fertile ground for furthering the Marie Antoinette-type of global systemic solutions—let peasants eat cake if they are starved of bread—for another four years.

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