For the past 10 years, the 153 nations of the World Trade Organization have tried again and again to modernize the global trading body, particularly by lifting farm subsidies and lessening trade barriers for food and other crops. But if the world can finally wrap up these arduous discussions -- known as the Doha round -- we won't just succeed in opening up new markets for wheat and mangoes. We can also do quite a lot of good for the planet, and particularly for the world's dangerously overfished oceans and seas.
Since the Doha talks began in 2001, one of the biggest issues at stake has been whether the WTO can develop enforceable trade rules to protect our environment and natural resources. The WTO's trade ministers agreed that year to negotiate rules limiting subsidies for ocean fishing. This was not just a commercial objective; it was also a historic decision to use trade rules to save a rapidly depleting natural resource: the world's fish. Unfortunately, we are in danger of failing to reach this goal as key players continue to wrangle over other issues, namely agriculture and market access for industrial goods. It is time for the United States to assert its historical leadership role to bring the overall negotiations to a successful conclusion and insist that the WTO prohibit the subsidies that are depleting the world's fisheries and robbing millions of fishermen and their families of their livelihoods.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 85 percent of the world's fisheries are now overexploited, fully exploited, significantly depleted, or recovering from overexploitation. In other words, the vast majority are in dire need of conservation. And despite the international consensus to that effect, many governments, including the European Union, China, and Brazil, continue to provide major subsidies to their fishing sectors. These subsidies promote overfishing by pushing fleets to fish for longer periods, using more aggressive techniques farther away from shore than would otherwise be economically feasible.
Trade negotiations used to be fairly narrow in their focus, dealing primarily with tariffs, quotas, and basic rules on subsidies, dumping, and safeguard action. During the Uruguay round of trade talks in the late 1980s, issues like services, government procurement, intellectual property, and agricultural subsidies started to appear on the negotiating agenda. While new in subject matter, these topics remained within negotiators' comfort zone of commercial issues. But in the early 1990s, things became complicated as the United States began to press for inclusion of workers' rights and environmental issues in its regional and bilateral trade agreements.
Early on, many of us in the trade-negotiations business resisted this intrusion into our universe. The reaction of our counterparts in other countries, especially in the developing world, was even stronger. In their view, these issues were Trojan horses, non-tariff barriers intended to prevent competition. Political rhetoric in the United States helped reinforce this impression. Proponents of adding environmental and human rights clauses laced their arguments with dire warnings that American jobs would be undercut by low-wage, union-hostile, polluting countries. Failure to include measures to promote better labor and environmental practices by America's trading partners, it was argued, would set off a proverbial "race to the bottom."
Despite strong resistance, however, the United States prevailed and included labor and environmental agreements in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994. Under NAFTA, the parties recognized that it would be inappropriate to encourage investment by relaxing domestic health, safety, or environmental measures. The North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation, also going into force in 1994, went well beyond the original trade deal's environmental provisions and established additional obligations such as ensuring the signing countries' laws provided for high levels of environmental protection and the creation of a permanent secretariat to implement the provisions of the side agreement.
Following the Miami Summit of the Americas in 1994, Bill Clinton's administration insisted that similar labor and environment issues be made part of the negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the proposed free trade zone for the entire Western Hemisphere. Latin American and Caribbean countries strenuously opposed this initiative on the grounds that it was an unfair (and protectionist) effort to impose developed-country standards on developing countries and undermine their comparative advantage. The FTAA collapsed for other reasons, so we will never know which ride would have prevailed or whether labor standards and the environment would have been the deal-breaking issues that both sides claimed. However, my experience as the chief U.S. negotiator for the FTAA at the time left me feeling very skeptical about the usefulness of pressing such acrimonious positions, which often seemed more ideological than practical.