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What would an EU-US trade pact mean for the WTO?

President Obama's State of the Union endorsement of a free trade pact with Europe has moved the issue to the policy front burner. For both sides, the deal's expected economic lift  is the principal selling point. But European and U.S. officials have emphasized another advantage: the benefits of a trade pact for the troubled multilateral trading system, led by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Washington and Brussels insist that a bilateral pact would in fact advance global trade liberalization. The EU envoy to the United States made the point in a Wednesday op-ed:

Working toward a trade pact also recognizes that a more intense EU-US partnership can enhance the capacity of Europe and the US to deal more effectively with other regions of the world.

Reaching an ambitious economic agreement between us would send a powerful message to the rest of the world about our leadership in shaping global economic governance in line with our values.

The battle to promote free and open democratic principles and practices, as Europe and the US interpret them, is far from over and the attraction of undemocratic formulas of governance is a reality in many parts of the world. A free trade agreement not only serves European and US interests, it serves the interests of the world – and promotes democratic values.

The White House point person on international economic affairs, Michael Froman, also emphasized that a pact would "help set global rules that could help strengthen the multilateral trading system."

Unsurprisingly, Washington and Brussels are taking the most sanguine view of the longstanding debate about the compatability of regional and global trade liberalization. They're not alone in their optimism. Indonesia's candidate to lead the WTO told Reuters that a bilateral deal would push other players to get more serious about stalled global talks.  "The U.S.-EU deal will be a catalyst...Others will see the momentum and they won't want to be overtaken by events."

But advocates of global free trade have long worried that the trend toward regional and bilateral trade blocs will suck the energy out of global trade talks and, worse, create a confusing and inefficient trading system. WTO officials reacted cautiously to the news of a US-EU trade push. Via Agence France Presse:

Creating preferential trade agreements (PTAs) between states, such as an EU-U.S. deal, may achieve some of the same ends, but many experts are concerned that breaking the world into blocs could end up creating new obstacles to global trade.

"The more problematic side of myriad different PTAs is that they create a hodgepodge of different regulations, standards and norms that can evolve into serious non-tariff barriers," said Keith Rockwell, chief spokesman at the Geneva-based WTO.

The Multilateralist

India turns interventionist?

India was famously cool to the Western-led intervention in Libya, and its criticism of that operation led U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice to publicly express disappointment with Indian diplomacy. The script has been different with Mali. The Times of India unpacks New Delhi's support for the latest intervention in north Africa:

Indian officials said they have been "kept in the loop" by Paris from the beginning. In December 2012, during its last month at the UN Security Council, India co-sponsored a French resolution UNSCR 2085 that supported an African Union-ECOWAS military force in Mali. The French military intervention in Mali has not prompted the expected negative reaction from New Delhi.

And, the target this time around is al-Qaida and its affiliated groups in that region, where India, like others, is developing economic interests. India's reaction to the France-led operation in Libya in 2011 was much more negative. In fact, many in the Indian government believe that the Mali crisis was a natural blowback of the Libya conflict.

Off the record, Indian officials express fears that al-Qaida-fuelled unrest could spread in those difficult regions, because of what they believe is a deadly cocktail of Islamist extremist ideology, widespread poverty, lack of governance and vast amounts of arms and weapons. Most of these weapons were taken out of Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

The account doesn't mention another distinction likely relevant to India: The Mali intervention is bolstering  a sitting  government while NATO action in Libya ultimately toppled one.