Keep Talking on Trade

ASIDE from achieving a peaceful resolution to the Gulf crisis, no more urgent task faces the international community than reviving the global trade talks that collapsed in Brussels last week. With the political barometer rising in many corners of the world, owing to the end of the cold war and the spread of democracy across Eastern Europe, South America, and the Pacific Rim, storm clouds mustn't be allowed to build over the global trading order, on which world prosperity heavily depends. In 1986 the 107 members of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) embarked on the Uruguay round of negotiations to liberalize world trade. Over the four years, substantial headway was made toward easing restrictions on trade in services like banking, insurance, and construction, and also toward agreements to respect nations' patents and copyrights. Services and intellectual property have not previously been covered by GATT.

But what was to be the climactic session of the Uruguay round, culminating in the signing of comprehensive trade agreements, broke up in disarray over agriculture. At loggerheads were the European Community, eager to preserve subsidies that benefit the EC's 10 million farmers, and the United States and the so-called Cairns Group of 14 major food-exporting countries, which insist that agricultural trade barriers be lowered.

Although farm products comprise but a small part of world trade, agriculture is a politically explosive subject. And in the intricate web of global trade arrangements and linked accommodations, agriculture is not readily severed from other areas.

The talks are not beyond salvage. In the weeks ahead, Arthur Dunkel, the Swiss director general of GATT, plans to shuttle among the principal capitals, smoothing feathers and trying to bring positions closer together. There is still hope that, after this process of consultation, the talks could be reconvened in Geneva in mid-January.

It is a time for skillful, sensitive, and constructive diplomacy. The world has far too much to lose to allow the trade talks to founder. Many observers think that at stake is not only the Uruguay round, but, in the longer term, the whole GATT structure built up over 40 years. If the multilateral trade process is discredited, governments and industries could start pursuing aggressive trade strategies, from which no one ultimately stands to benefit.

For a start, governments should refrain from recriminations and finger pointing. They should permit Mr. Dunkel to go about his delicate mission quietly and in a climate of good intentions.

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