“A conference is a gathering of important people who singly can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done,” joked Fred Allen, the late comedian.

The World Trade Organization conference in Hong Kong, which I attended, didn’t go as poorly as Allen might have predicted. A few things did in fact get done, and for that reason the talks perhaps qualify as a pleasant surprise. They might even be called successful simply because they didn’t fail, as some people worried they would.

After a week of top-level negotiations, global trade enjoyed modest progress. The broad strokes of the Hong Kong agreement have been widely reported: Agricultural export subsidies will be phased out by 2013 and developed nations will modestly open their markets to a range of products from developing countries.

Yet the deal could have been much better: The United States was pushing for an end to export subsidies in 2010, industrialized countries will retain an ability to exclude politically sensitive goods, and tariffs in the developing world are still high.

Free trade’s to-do list is as long as Santa’s on the night before Christmas, and the trade ministers in Hong Kong aren’t exactly coming home with presents for every boy and girl.

An enormous amount of work is yet undone, and negotiators now have about a year to do it. The decisions that lie in front of them will be difficult: In global trade terms, we’ve plucked all of the low-hanging fruit.

What lies ahead is more bargaining on agriculture, especially farm subsidies in the United States, Europe, and Japan countered by increased access to markets. The developing world also must open its markets to manufactured good and services from the industrialized world and begin to demonstrate an interest in recognizing intellectual property rights.

Unfortunately, progress will be controversial–think of these areas as high-hanging fruit whose harvesting will require circus-like acrobatics on the ends of tall ladders. These feats, if they occur at all, will take place over the next 12 months as negotiators huddle in Geneva and try to bang out the details of a big compromise. One year is about all the time they’ve got, because President Bush’s Trade Promotion Authority expires on July 1, 2007. Any WTO agreement that is to make it through Congress will have to be wrapped up about six months prior to this drop-dead date.

Tough agreements are possible if negotiators approach them with intelligence and delicacy: Changes should be phased in gradually over time; with deadlines set into a future that doesn’t carry the urgency of tomorrow but which also will arrive well before the Detroit Lions play in a Super Bowl.

The Hong Kong conference did prove one thing conclusively, at least in my mind: The protestors who gather at these WTO meetings accomplish precisely nothing. They made a lot of noise and accomplished their mission to get on TV, but they didn’t have an iota of influence on the proceedings. This is in part due to the professionalism of the Hong Kong police, but mostly because the protestors shout slogans rather than share ideas.

And because their irritating presence is now expected, they resort to increasingly strange antics to attract the media attention they so crave. A bunch of South Korean rice farmers, for instance, jumped into the bay and tried to swim to the convention center. They’re worried about losing government protections for their high cost production and facing international competition.

I don’t know what they would have done if they had actually reached their destination. Maybe look around for towels? They probably would have been better off staying dry on their farms back in Korea and getting some real work done. (The next day, I spotted a cartoon in an English-language newspaper, which showed the swimmers listening to a man on a boat yell into a bullhorn: “The Beijing Olympics are that way!”)

Maybe it’s the protestors who need to think about Fred Allen’s crack: They seem to think that assembling in swarms is important, but whenever they do, they accomplish absolutely nothing.

Dean Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). An Iowa farmer and former President of the American Farm Bureau, Mr. Kleckner was the only farmer on the U.S. advisory team to the GATT negotiations when they began in September 1986 in Uruguay.