World Bank President Robert Zoellick: U.S. ‘dumbing down’ global trade talks

Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said that an article by former U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab appeared in Foreign Policy magazine. The article appeared in Foreign Affairs. This version has been corrected.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick launched a blunt critique of the Obama administration’s trade policy Sunday and in a separate interview said the United States was failing to assert its natural leadership in the global economy.

In an address to be delivered at a World Trade Organization meeting in Geneva on Monday, Zoellick cites the United States by name as “dumbing down” the ongoing and largely stalled Doha round of world trade talks.

He elaborated in an interview, saying he was concerned that none of the major trading nations are talking ambitiously about how to lower global trade barriers — putting economic growth at risk, particularly for the less-developed countries on which the bank’s work focuses.

“The whole discussion has become very defeatist,” he said. “I draw out the U.S. because the U.S. should still be the world leader.”

His comments reflect the near-moribund state of the Doha talks and a background feud in Washington over who is to blame for the lack of results after a decade of negotiations. They also come as Zoellick nears the end of his term — with no clear statement of his plans and no clear sign from President Obama about whether he wants the former George W. Bush administration trade representative to stay in the job.

The Obama administration indirectly shifted the blame for Doha back on Zoellick, saying that the talks were stymied because of how they were “initially structured” under a framework Zoellick helped develop when he worked for Bush.

That structure has also been criticized by Zoellick’s successor, former U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab, who in a recent Foreign Affairs article said the talks were “doomed.” Administration officials said the framework in particular gives now-powerful developing countries such as China too much flexibility to keep parts of their economy closed.

“The Obama administration has been the chief proponent of greater ambition in the Doha round,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Unfortunately, in part because of the manner in which the negotiations were initially structured, there has been little appetite for that sort of ambition by other major trading partners.”

The current talks began in 2001. But instead of the encompassing trade pact initially envisioned, negotiators are now seeking a narrower deal, acknowledging that they cannot resolve disputes such as demands by developing nations for cuts to U.S. farm subsidies and U.S. demands for more access to service, agricultural and other protected markets in places such as India and Brazil.

Zoellick argued that the administration’s unwillingness to cut farm and ethanol subsidies, for example, made little sense when the United States is looking for ways to rein in public spending. “It’s a missed opportunity for a pro-growth strategy at a time when the U.S. — and the world — could use one,” Zoellick said, arguing that leaders of major nations as a whole seemed to “think small” when it came to Doha.

He included his former boss, Bush, in the group.

Zoellick’s term expires next year. He has not indicated whether he wants to stay in the job, which by tradition is chosen by the United States, one of the bank’s major funders. The Obama administration recently played down speculation that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wants the job.

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