Get ready for failure of global trade negotiations known as the Uruguay Round (set in motion four years ago at Punta del Este) and prepare, instead, for trade wars between the United States and Europe. That's the word being quietly passed by Bush administration officials, who begin to sense that their negotiators may come back from Brussels at the end of the year empty-handed.

"It is important to recognize that failure is not Armageddon: We can leave Brussels without an agreement," J. Michael Farren, undersecretary of Commerce, recently told a group of industry leaders and trade professionals at a forum sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Julius Katz, deputy U.S. trade representative, told the same meeting that the situation is "increasingly hopeless ... {although} it's possible that we will pull it off. But at some time on every day, I question my own instincts" to be optimistic.

Katz stressed that he, Trade Representative Carla Hills and other U.S. officials "are not ready to throw in the sponge, but we're mindful of the odds, which are diminishing."

Increasingly, the attitude that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is reflected among key American business leaders.

If not precisely the end of the world, a "no-deal" ending to the last four years of nonstop trade talks would be bad news for those who believe that reduced trade barriers lead to a higher standard of living. Whether heads of state could get the talks started again is an open question.

The main sticking point is European intransigence on agriculture. It is holding up the whole process, although the United States has softened its demand that "trade-distorting" farm export subsidies be wiped out.

"We're sure that the position they plan to put on the table next week will be unacceptable," Katz said. "The question is whether it will be negotiable."

Katz said that the United States now looks only for "substantial elimination" of $9 billion in annual European farm subsidies, whereas the original American position demanded their elimination. "We want a process, a large move in that direction," Katz said.

But to protect their farmers, French and German politicians have been adamant against making basic concessions, although European Community officials have recommended a negotiating offer to cut subsidies 30 percent. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is reluctant to do anything that will affect German farmers' income prior to the Dec. 2 election.

Experts say that the success of the Uruguay Round would extend international trading rules of the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to services and to "intellectual property" such as patents and copyrights. It also would trigger a cut of one-third in existing tariffs, leading to a $4 trillion boost over 10 years in the global economy (about one-fourth of which would be reflected in the United States gross national product).

If multilateral agreements can't be reached, said former trade negotiator Michael B. Smith, "I can foresee an accelerated move toward regional or bilateral trade deals."

Without some reduction in European export subsidies on farm products that undercut their own economies, Third World countries won't agree to protect patent and other "intellectual property" rights, an American goal. Meanwhile, Japan, which stands to benefit most from new liberalization of trade rules, is refusing to make more than token adjustments in its massive protection of rice farmers.

Katz made clear that, "If we are to succeed, we need to succeed big. Agriculture is very important to us -- we must have the potential for larger exports. We need an agreement that is large in scope and qualitatively strong: We don't have the luxury of making a mini-deal."

Other stumbling blocks to the Uruguay Round include serious disputes over extension of GATT rules to services, especially since the United States, at the urging of its domestic industry, is threatening to take telecommunications off the table.

To hardened trade practitioners, the pessimism seems real this time, not a transparent bargaining tactic culminating in a magic peacemaking formula at the 11th hour. Of course, that could happen again. One cynic said this week: "It ain't over until the GATT lady sings."

But right now, the United States and Europe are so far apart -- and the time left is so short -- that many fear that even if a deal could be reached by a December deadline, it may not be worth the effort.