Push Hard for GATT

THIS is the GATT that has nine lives. But is even this knack for survivability enough to produce a new global trading order?

Negotiators from the 108 nations comprising the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade met in Geneva Jan. 13 to resume arduous talks on liberalizing world commerce. GATT's "Uruguay Round," if completed, would lower tariffs and other trade barriers on many of the world's goods and commodities.

But it goes much further: As boldly conceived in 1986, the round would also ease trade restrictions on services like banking, would better protect intellectual property (patents and copyrights) from piracy, and would improve resolution procedures for trade disputes.

Many trade experts predict that the new rules would greatly expand world trade and prosperity. Failure to achieve the goals could intensify protectionism.

Despite the anticipated benefits, however, the GATT talks have nearly collapsed on several occasions. The main sticking point has been agriculture, especially the resistance of European farmers to reduce import barriers and export subsidies to levels demanded by the United States and other major food exporters.

To break the deadlock, GATT Director-General Arthur Dunkel last month issued a 450-page compromise proposal. Although the Dunkel plan leaves some issues unresolved, it is a balanced and constructive basis for rejuvenated discussions. Predictably, groups dissatisfied with its provisions have been more active in opposition than supporters of the plan have been in its defense.

If the Uruguay Round is to be completed this year (and some observers say it's this year or never), an agreement must be hammered out by spring. After that, it could become hostage to American election politics.

President George Bush should exercise as much imaginative and persistent leadership in building consensus for GATT as he did in assembling the Gulf-war coalition. He has a chance to make up for his mishandling of trade issues in Japan last week. That would be in the long-term interest of US and world prosperity.

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