Russia, the most important country outside the W.T.O., has been pursuing membership for 16 years. In 2004, the country signed a trade deal with the European Union to pave the way for its admission to the global trade body.
Today, Russia seems to be less interested, Pascal Lamy, who last month started his second term as director general of the W.T.O., said during an interview.
He pointed to the announcement in June by the Russian prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, that Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus would pursue W.T.O. membership jointly as a customs union — something for which there is no precedent under W.T.O. rules.
“It will make the application of Russia much more complex, it will run even longer,” Mr. Lamy said.
“The fundamental reality is that there is no energy in Moscow to join” any more, said Mr. Lamy, who five years ago, as the European trade commissioner, negotiated the deal with Moscow.
The reasons for the waning enthusiasm, analysts say, are tied to domestic politics, the composition of Russia’s energy-heavy exports and a suspicion of the motives of the West. Joining the group that sets rules for globalization had been a major foreign policy goal of Mr. Putin, so his pivot this summer — to say that Russia would join only in a customs union — baffled trade negotiators.
In Moscow, however, the change in stance was seen as reflecting a fault line in the government over economic policy.
Aides to President Dmitri A. Medvedev had been pushing W.T.O. membership as a tool to help diversify the economy away from oil exports. Supporters of Mr. Putin have argued instead for an emphasis on increasing earnings from oil and raw materials exports.
By last month, the apparent rift had grown so wide that Mr. Medvedev felt compelled to contest the characterization of the W.T.O. membership debate as signifying a public split with the powerful Mr. Putin. “In the W.T.O., they started to say that the president has one point of view, the prime minister another on this question,” Mr. Medvedev said, according to the news agency Interfax. “That’s a mistake. The decision on how we will join has been taken.”
Joining through the customs union will probably mean a long delay for Russia’s accession. The attitudes of Russia and China toward the W.T.O. have been “like night and day,” Mr. Lamy said.
That might largely be explained by China’s much greater dependence on exports of manufactured goods. Beijing joined the W.T.O. in 2001 “as an insurance against protectionism, to enhance domestic development,” Mr. Lamy said.
That insurance policy seems to have paid off — so far — during the global slowdown, he said.
“For many, the importance of discipline is even higher today than it was before the shocks,” he added.
But the “real stress test for the W.T.O.” is likely to come in the next year or two as unemployment is expected to rise in developed countries, even as economies recover, putting the global trading system under additional pressure.
Mr. Lamy said he believed that additional stress meant that progress on the next round of removing trade barriers, known as the Doha round, was even more imperative, to provide more “predictability” to the system.
Those talks were kicked off in Doha, Qatar, in 2001 and have progressed bumpily. They have been marked by a newfound assertiveness on the part of a group developing countries in the face of the established Western economic powers.
The financial crisis has “hugely increased the importance of these W.T.O. negotiations for developing countries, which depend much more than developed countries on trade,” Mr. Lamy said. “They don’t have access to huge public funds to bail out their industry, so for them, trade is the only way out.”
During its meeting last month in Pittsburgh, the Group of 20 countries called for a Doha deal to be completed by the end of 2010. Whether that is realistic will depend on three weeks of intensive negotiations from now through December in Geneva, Mr. Lamy said.
“We’ve done 80 percent of the negotiation,” he said, stressing that the remaining 20 percent would be problematic because it came down to all members agreeing on everything. “Everyone still has to make gestures,” he said.
While clearly frustrated with the complexities of the U.S. political system, which gives Congress a large role in setting trade policy, he was reluctant to criticize the new administration of President Barack Obama, saying its trade agenda was still “unclear.”
The main matters to be resolved, Mr. Lamy said, include the well-aired issue of safeguards for possible surges of agricultural imports for developing countries. While a basic political agreement on this appears to be in place, the technical parameters of what constitutes a “damaging surge in imports” are still on the table.
“India is now in the game of a final deal,” he said, noting that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had removed his previous trade minister, Kamal Nath, who was seen by some analysts as an obstruction to a deal, and replaced him with Anand Sharma.“We now need to see whether they will come to the table in the coming weeks and months and are willing to compromise,” he said of New Delhi.
This debate has been portrayed by some as a U.S.-India duel, but Mr. Lamy said it was more complex. For example, the United States is supported by agricultural exporters like Brazil, Argentina and Thailand, while India is backed by the Philippines and some African countries.
Within the United States, a crucial issue will be how far the American Farm Bureau, a lobby group, is able to persuade Congress to move and the timing of such an approach.“Are they playing a game for a better deal or do they really have constraints?” Mr. Lamy said. “It’s not clear to us.”
More broadly, he said, the Obama administration has “quite a loaded agenda with Congress, including health care, the environment and financial regulation.”
“Trade is not top of that list in terms of Congressional politics,” Mr. Lamy said, noting that only two of five members of the administration’s trade negotiating team had been approved by the Senate.
To get Congress to ratify trade legislation, “the administration needs a package that is broad enough to balance concessions in some areas with gains in others,” Mr. Lamy said. That, he said, will probably require some concessions to Washington from India, Brazil, China and others.
Another major stumbling block is cotton where, because of the crop’s importance in Africa, many developing countries want subsides lowered faster and further than with other products. But U.S. negotiators appear reluctant to present concessions to Congress too early for fear of a backlash by lawmakers from cotton-growing states.
The final impediment appears to be industrial tariffs and whether cuts would be above or below draft formulas for certain sectors.
Mr. Lamy said a deal on services was likely to come only at the last minute because of the complexity of negotiating sectoral accords that did not involve direct tariffs.
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