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Sebastian Mallaby, Columnist

Zoellick's Lonely Path

By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page A21

Bob Zoellick is an outlier in the Bush economic team. He is not an ideologue. He is not a former private-sector chieftain. He has not been dismissed yet. Whereas the style of the Bush people is measured, plain-spoken and determinedly unflustered, Zoellick is intense, wonkish and furiously competitive. Rather like his short mustache, he bristles with a fiery energy.

He beams this energy, what's more, at an untypical Bush target. Far from disdaining multilateral powwows, he has used his position as U.S. trade representative to launch a whole new round of multilateral trade talks. To drive these talks forward, he sprints manically around the globe: He's in Europe today, then on to Benin, Mali and Senegal, then Namibia and Lesotho. Let Colin Powell conduct telephone diplomacy from his armchair. In February Zoellick logged 32,000 miles in a dash around the world, determined to make 2004 a year of progress despite the distractions of a U.S. presidential election.

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Zoellick has done well so far. The Clinton administration tried to launch a new round of multilateral trade talks; it failed to do so. The Clinton administration tried to get "fast track" negotiating authority out of Congress; it failed there too, whereas Zoellick succeeded. February's turbo-charged diplomacy led to an outline agreement on agricultural liberalization, one of the trickiest areas of the talks, and one of the most important to poor countries.

But the question for Zoellick now is whether formidable brains and energy can vindicate his controversial theory of progress -- one that most trade economists regard as dangerous. The theory is that, in order to advance global trade liberalization, it pays to shove ahead with bilateral and regional deals, too, and never mind that bilateral deals don't always expand trade or reduce poverty. By embracing this theory, the Bush team's chief wonk has alienated fellow wonks at campuses and think tanks. He is an outlier not only in the Cabinet but among his natural soul mates.

The case against Zoellick is not just that regional and bilateral deals may do no good but that they may actually be harmful. In extreme cases, which tend not to involve the United States, a group of countries may unite their markets while raising barriers against the rest of the world, destroying more trade than is created. But even in less-extreme cases, the proliferation of small deals creates a cat's cradle of overlapping customs rules, tariff schedules and regulatory schemes, with the result that economic activity gets strangled. The average African country already belongs to four different trade agreements.

Moreover, bilateral and regional deals theoretically reduce the momentum for worthwhile multilateral ones. Zoellick has negotiated free-trade areas with 12 countries, and he is in the midst of negotiations with 10 more. Each of these nations is counting on preferential access to American consumers. Why would they favor a multilateral deal that extended the same access to rival producers in India or China?

Equally, small deals can complicate trade politics within the United States. Because America's market is such a rich lure, other countries will accept almost any conditions that U.S. negotiators demand as the price of an agreement. Poor countries may agree to abide by exacting labor and environmental standards that they would never tolerate in the context of a multilateral deal; they may allow U.S. producer groups, such as cattle ranchers or sugar growers, to dilute a deal with outrageous protections. This creates precedents that anti-trade lobbyists can exploit. Ever since Jordan signed up to tough labor rules, for example, protectionists have attacked subsequent trade deals for "backsliding."

So there are theoretical reasons, both economic and political, to worry about Zoellick's multi-front negotiating strategy. But if you watch Zoellick in action, you wonder whether theory is so relevant. All his frenetic trade diplomacy puts him in constant contact with his counterparts around the world and gives him endless openings to schmooze and bargain. In theory, doing a free-trade deal with Egypt may dampen Egypt's enthusiasm for a multilateral round of tariff cuts. But in the real world, who knows? Maybe Egypt's trade minister becomes a firm Zoellick ally. Maybe that alliance will serve to promote Zoellick's multilateral ambitions.

One thing is sure, though. No matter whether Zoellick's tactics work, he has built an international network and a reputation as a dynamo. His hopscotching around Africa this week may or may not create useful trade momentum; but it is surely adding to the Zoellick brand, and to his own career prospects. Zoellick for Treasury secretary? Zoellick for Middle East envoy? Zoellick for the World Bank presidency?

mallabys@washpost.com


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