The cold-war days when global trade pacts came easily are over, especially with fewer incentives for the US to be the diplomatic dynamo in prying markets open.
Still, in what may be one last try for a new pact, 146 nations gathered this week in Cancún, Mexico, to search for the compromises they will all need to make in order to enjoy the benefits of a more open trading system with fewer barriers and reduced subsidies.
While the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994 cemented many trading rules, much more needs to be done in certain fields, such as agriculture, with special focus on helping poor nations enter the global trading system.
Handsome supports for farmers in rich countries - more than $300 billion - remain the main barrier to a deal at Cancún. The European Union, while still a big offender in coddling its farmers, has made progress and promises in slashing supports, driven mainly by a desire not to prop up farmers in East European nations that are joining the EU. Its leaders must see beyond the next election to the long-term advantages of freer trade. France, especially, refuses to alter the sheltered lifestyle of its powerful small farmers.
The Cancún talks may be the last chance for a grand deal before a 2005 deadline set for this round of talks, which began two years ago. The United States initiated this round, but with prospects dimming for a deal, it has put more energy into seeking bilateral and regional trade pacts, the latest with Chile and Singapore.
A patchwork of agreements between individual nations does indeed open trade, but it also saps incentives for a global pact, which would be better. The US, with the world's largest market, hopes these lesser pacts will force other countries to compromise on a global deal, but so far that dubious strategy doesn't seem to be working.
In fact, too many nations are posturing for advantage with their "final offer" without enough of the give-and-take that's required to pull a large and complex agreement together. Compromises are especially difficult when so many nations are going through economic weakness, which heighten political pressures to protect domestic producers. But a Cancún deal could allow nations to adjust slowly to open trade as long as they commit to lower barriers.
Writing in transitional safeguards for producers unable to compete in global markets may be the key to an agreement. But eventually, rich and poor nations must see they both benefit from more-open global markets.