IN A SPEECH on Wednesday at the United Nations, President Bush reminded his fellow leaders of the importance of trade liberalization. As he argued, liberalization has both a moral and a practical component: moral, because people deserve the chance to sell into rich markets irrespective of the country of their birth; practical, because trade liberalization helps poor countries at no overall cost to rich ones. Mr. Bush was right, moreover, to emphasize the importance of global liberalization as opposed to regional and bilateral deals, which bring far fewer benefits and which have absorbed too much of his administration's trade energy. The problem is that, despite Mr. Bush's bold rhetoric, global trade diplomacy is adrift. A chance to conclude the negotiations launched amid great fanfare in Doha, Qatar, four years ago may be slipping away, and there won't be a second chance in the near future.
Trade deadlines are notoriously soft; it took seven years to complete the previous Uruguay round, whose collapse was trumpeted frequently and wrongly. The current tendency to present the summit of trade ministers in Hong Kong in December as a make-or-break moment overstates the gathering's importance. But the Doha round does face a genuine deadline in June 2007, when the trade promotion authority that Congress granted to Mr. Bushexpires. The Clinton administration twice failed to secure that authority, and Mr. Bush acquired it only by using his prestige as a newly elected incumbent to twist arms; it's unlikely that he could secure its extension. That leaves less than two years in which to conclude the Doha round. But in the four years since it was launched, progress has been minimal.
There's plenty of blame to go around for this. Big emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil are content to criticize rich countries' agricultural subsidies without offering to cut their own industrial and service-sector tariffs, even though letting in cars from rich countries, parcel-delivery services and banks would boost the efficiency of their economies. The European Union makes much of its offer to cut farm subsidies but refuses to rethink its egregious agricultural tariffs, which are twice as high as those of the United States and do far more damage to developing countries than do subsidies. Meanwhile Japan is unwilling to weaken its protections for farmers, and the United States has failed to play its traditional role as the leader in liberalization.
On Wednesday Mr. Bush hinted that this could change; he said he was willing to drop all protectionist barriers if other countries do the same. If the president is at all serious about this offer, his negotiators must follow it up quickly with detailed offers that can shame other countries into following. There is enough at stake here to warrant sustained presidential attention: According to the World Bank, a successful Doha round could lift more than 100 million people out of poverty as well as boost growth in rich countries.