What will be the legacy of Doha?

When we look back at this era of global politics, what will be the legacy of Doha?  It is an important question when we consider the places which have become synonymous with international conferences: Yalta and Potsdam as sites for the development of the post-World War II agenda, Stockholm and Rio as key sites for international environmental politics, Davos as the site of the World Economic Forum.  Each of these locations serve as markers on the timeline of multilateral solutions to problems.  Where does Doha belong on this discussion?

In two days, delegations from around the world will start the 18th Conference of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  Climate negotiations are in a precarious position.  Kyoto has largely failed to produce stronger agreement by states (undermined by its lack of requirements on developing countries and opposition by the U.S.), the attempts to resuscitate climate efforts have continually fell flat (in Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban), and the recent UN report that the best efforts being organized currently are likely to leave a significant amount of carbon emissions above where we would have to be to keep warming under 2 degrees.  And so, it comes to Doha.  After Hurricane Sandy, after the U.S. Presidential election.  What will be the likely legacy of this meeting.

Doha, right now, is a depreciated brand name.  In November 2001, the World Trade Organization met for its meeting in Doha, this was two years after the meeting in Seattle was disrupted by protests and significant internal divergence on the goals of the next round for the organization.  The result was the Doha Declaration which was  a broad-based attempt to make progress on multiple issues largely by agreeing to strengthen different issues.  In general the deal was to push trade liberalization on issues important to developing countries (mainly agricultural goods) at the same time as liberalization for issues important to developed countries (investment and intellectual property). At the time, celebration about the outcome was quite bold.  WTO Director General Mike Moore, whose role seemed to be mainly sustained optimism, said a month after the Doha meeting that:

“We tend to talk rather glibly about the historic importance of such events, but this time, for once, the claim is not exaggerated; the meeting at Doha will be remembered as a turning-point in the history of the WTO and the trading system and in relations between developed and developing countries within that system.”

10 years later how has this agreement done?  Jagdish Bhagwati  seemed to summarize the issue precisely by writing that:

“The Doha Round, the latest phase of multilateral trade negotiations, failed in November 2011, after 10 years of talks…But that is hardly the end of the matter: the failure of Doha will virtually halt multilateral trade liberalisation for years to come.”

Doha, unless a near-miracle somehow occurs, is largely a untrusted brand on the path of multilateralism.  Not quite Seattle or Genoa, but nowhere near any of the success stories.  So, the COP18 is not just a chance to address the deepening political problem of climate, but a chance to put Doha in relevance again.

I see three possibilities likely:

  1. All Celebration, Little Work.  The WTO conference at Doha was this outcome.  All celebration about coming to an agreement after the scuttled efforts in Seattle, but not with the hard work of actually figuring out how to combine the varied agenda items, work out problems, and get implementation going.  Rio+20 may have been a similar outcome.  This is a bad outcome.  But there is a simple test, just ask: what else new did states agree to?  If they agreed to some common understandings or reiterating earlier agreements, then the celebration is self-congratulations.  If they actually agree to something, if the U.S. decides to start being a leader, if China, India, and Brazil agree to some reductions, all of these show that maybe we haven’t worked out all the specifics, but that some celebration is warranted.
  2. Collapse. In this instance, negotiations accomplish nothing.  We’re not at this point yet.  However, if states abandon the goal of trying to keep warming within 2 degrees, this would represent the failure and probable collapse of international climate change negotiations.  Although state parties will be unlikely to repudiate the goal, if the discourse moves dramatically away from this goal, be wary.
  3. Little Celebration, All work.  A major breakthrough on climate negotiations is unlikely to happen.  Far more likely is some reiteration of prior agreements and some significant work by negotiators in figuring out how to get developing countries to agree to emission limits, how to get the U.S. into the system, and how to get Europe working again.  Negotiators seem to be very happy with such an effort.  A good example might be the Uruguay round of WTO negotiations which sat idle for many years until finally breaking through.

My guess is that #1 is the most likely outcome.  In which case, the legacy of Doha will be a place to produce all shine and little substance in international negotiations–a dubious honor.  However, if COP18 produces a positive work agenda with strong affirmations of the 2 degree goal, Doha’s legacy may be improved significantly.  It won’t, and shouldn’t, be the main concern of the negotiations and the next couple of days; however, it should be something reflected on after the conference in order to assess its effectiveness and understand how international agreements are working.  Let’s see.


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