By and  on October 4, 2005

WASHINGTON — The potential for lowering trade barriers is great, but the obstacles are many for upcoming World Trade Organization talks.

Trade officials from around the world face political and economic hurdles as they head into a crucial meeting in Hong Kong in December that, if successful, will lay out a plan to complete the Doha round of talks aimed at decreasing global tariffs by the end of 2006.

A broad assortment of policy wonks, former trade officials and lawmakers who will ultimately sign off on an agreement sounded more than a few notes of caution at "The World Trade Organization at 10 and the Road to Hong Kong," a two-day conference held here last week at the Georgetown University Law Center. It was cosponsored by the American Bar Association and the Washington International Trade Association.

Agricultural issues, including subsidies in rich nations, remain the most difficult aspect of the talks aimed at lowering international tariffs, but are not the only trouble spots. The erosion of preferential treatment for African nations could also provide some fireworks. There are 37 sub-Saharan countries receiving reduced tariffs under the African Growth & Opportunity Act, an edge that would be diminished as overall tariffs are dropped.

Wanting to hold onto their special treatment, some African countries might oppose the liberalization of textile trade, raising the specter of the September 2003 ministerial meeting in Cancún, Mexico, which fell apart when African trade negotiators walked out over agricultural subsidies in rich countries.

"Will we have a repeat of Cancún, where countries felt there was not enough on the table for them?" asked Meredith Broadbent, assistant U.S. trade representative for industry, market access and telecommunications. "We've been working ... on this in terms of defining the problem."

The U.S. is looking for countries that receive preferences to better define how a general drop in tariffs would affect them.

Given the breadth of the undertaking, the Doha round could produce dramatic results.

"The U.S. and China are the engines of the growth and we need to find more ways to spark economic growth internationally," Broadbent said.

Even if WTO trade ministers eventually resolve the thorny issues that have crippled the current round of talks — and that will require some heavy lifting — lawmakers on Capitol Hill will have the final word on ratifying the treaty in the U.S.

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