The Doha Round of WTO trade policy negotiations is using another one of its nine lives this fall with a goal of completing an agreement by the end of 2010. A meeting of 35 Trade Ministers in New Delhi, India on September 3-4 and the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh have caused anticipation of progress to build among interest groups. While the anticipation is good, there may be little else for now.

The Ministers in New Delhi agreed there was need for a WTO “process of engagement” for the rest of the year outlining meeting times and subjects. Planned meetings often act as intermediate targets that encourage behind the scenes technical and political efforts. WTO Director General Pascal Lamy presented a plan to an informal meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee in Geneva on September 22. Agriculture will be the focus of negotiations on September 30-October 2, October 12-16, November 16-20 and December 7-11. “Senior Officials” from national capitals will be meeting to push negotiations ahead on all issues on October 19-23, November 23-27 and December 14-16. The General Council of the WTO (ambassadors and heads of delegations in Geneva) will meet on October 20-21 while the Senior Officials are also meeting and again on December 17-18 after the Senior Officials meet earlier in the week. The Seventh Ministerial Conference of the WTO will be held in Geneva on November 30-December 2. This complex of meetings is an opportunity to make progress if there is political will.

Director General Lamy noted that while a work program is necessary, “It is insufficient to lead to a result.” That requires political engagement and hard bargaining that has not yet been seen. Getting work done this fall is critical because the general assumption is that much of the technical work needs to be wrapped up by March for the agreement to be completed by the end of 2010.

The U.S. is already at the center of attention as some negotiators believe it is unable or unwilling to participate actively in the process. The Obama Administration is tied up in domestic legislation on health care, carbon cap and trade and financial regulations. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has rejected that line of thinking, but it has stuck with many other negotiators.

That thinking has been reinforced by comments by the new Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), that negotiators should start over on the agricultural language because other nations have not adequately responded to U.S. proposals to reduce support for U.S. agriculture. That is viewed as not an option by negotiators from other countries because it would cause hundreds of issues to again be open for debate and result in no agreement in 2010.

Senator Lincoln’s views are certainly influenced by cotton producers in her state. U.S. cotton was singled out in the 2004 framework for negotiations for a higher percentage reduction in domestic support and in a shorter implementation period than the rest of agriculture covered in the agreement. Cotton acreage in the U.S. has been declining in recent years as other crops like corn and soybeans have been more profitable. U.S. cotton production accounted for 12.0 percent of world cotton production in 2008 compared to 20.4 percent as recently as 2005 and an average of 19.5 percent in 2001/02-2003/04 when U.S. cotton became a trade policy issue. Cotton production increases in India have kept pressure on cotton prices, and U.S. cotton producers continued to depend on farm program payments when producers of other farm program crops received record incomes from higher market prices.

The U.S. is not the only target for criticism. John Bruton, the EU Ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview with Reuters, "it would not be correct to say that the U.S. is the main obstacle." He said that India and other developing countries “are not as forthcoming as they ought to be." The new Indian Trade Minister, Anand Sharma, has been vocal in his support for the Doha negotiations, but there has been no indication that India has made any changes in its positions on agricultural trade issues. Drought problems caused by the less than normal monsoon rains may make the government less willing to change unless concerns from urban consumers about higher food prices force the government to open at least some markets to more trade. As incomes in developing countries like India continue to increase they will have more impact on markets and need more open trade policies.

Skepticism about a serious commitment to the Doha talks has been heightened by a recent report “Broken Promises: A G-20 Report by Global Trade Alert” on the number of protectionist trade measures taken by G-20 countries since November of last year when they agreed to not impose protectionist measures. Global Trade Alert (GTA) has investigated 425 government programs that may be viewed as protectionist. Since November of 2008, 280 national government trade programs have been implemented with 192 of them judged as favoring domestic producers with another 48 programs likely to hurt at least some foreign producers. GTA also found another 140 new programs have been announced, but not implemented, and 134 will discriminate against foreign producers. G-20 countries have implemented 172 of the 425 programs and 121 of them were determined to be protectionist.

Interest in reviving the Doha talks is good news, but as WTO Director General Lamy has said the real issue is political will. Senator Lincoln’s proposal to start over in agriculture is not likely to happen, but it raises a critical point about political will. Is it realistic to expect governments to develop political will to conclude discussions that have struggled for eight years? Senator Lincoln is not the only political leader in the world with specific concerns that can be addressed by starting over. Unless some country makes an offer that truly changes the political dynamics and provides the opportunity for new political will, the talks have probably grown too heavy to be carried further. The politically easy thing to do is to continue to give support for the Doha talks while doing nothing to change an individual country’s negotiating position. It will take great political will to say the Doha round has failed and it’s time to move on to a post-Doha approach in a narrower framework. Trade issues have accumulated over the eight years of Doha negotiations. Trade participants cannot afford to wait any longer for the political will to do the impossible.