Keep On Talking

Outlook Business, January 09, 2010
What Doha is for trade, Copenhagen may turn out to be for environment. Both are cities where the world first congregated to find common ground on an important matter, and then struggled to find any. In spite of good intentions, the gulf between the developed world and the developing world remains too deep and too wide to be bridged in one meeting. Or, in the case of trade talks under the umbrella of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), eight years and nine meetings. The repeated failure to reach a consensus at multilateral forums—where every nation has an equal vote—raises two fundamental questions: is multilateralism a failure and should we give up on it?

“Who says WTO is a failure?” asks a visibly agitated Partha Mukhopadhyay, Senior Research Fellow at the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research. “Just because we haven’t reached a consensus on Doha doesn’t mean the forum has become irrelevant.” He points out that anti-dumping cases and disputes are being resolved through this forum.

Smaller nations can bargain better as sub-groups than they would through bilateral pacts.

Mukhopadhyay argues that multilateralism, not bilateralism, is the best forum for developing countries. “By forming sub-groups within the multilateral forum, they can exercise far greater bargaining power than they would through bilateral pacts,” he says. A case in point is the inability of the US to pressure developing nations into significantly reducing per capita emission or opening up their markets to its agricultural products. “The process may take longer, but it’s more democratic and the outcomes are more acceptable,” says Mukhopadhyay.

Even in matters of climate change, multilateral talks are the only way out, says Pradeep S Mehta, Secretary General of the Jaipur-based Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS), a consumer group. “There is no point in having limited multilateralism for climate change. It’s a universal problem that everyone needs to sign on,” he adds. Mehta feels that unlike trade talks, which face stiff opposition from anti-globalisation forces, agreements to tackle climate change could have an easier passage. “The world is committed to preventing global warming,” he says. “Only the details of the pact have to be worked out. That may not be too difficult.”

Multilateralism will find ways to become more relevant. The world doesn’t have a choice. In environment matters, Mehta calls for “mini-lateralism”. “We need some kind of consensus among the four main players—the US, the European Union, China and India—to make multilateralism work,” he says. In fact, the genesis of a solution is already there: countries have pledged to cut emissions. A little effort from the big nations will seal the deal for the world. And for multilateralism.

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