The Special Safeguard Fiasco in the WTO: The Perils of Inadequate Analysis and Negotiation
Subjects: WTO and Globalization
The July 2008 attempt by a group of ministers to agree on modalities for the WTO’s Doha Round broke down in part because they could not agree on a proposed “Special Safeguard Mechanism” (SSM) for developing countries in agriculture. This paper offers a corrective to the conventional story that the breakdown was due to a simple conflict of interests over the SSM between the United States and India. The term SSM was first used in a Doha Round text in 2004, but neither the principles nor the commercial implications had ever been discussed by ministers before July 2008. The conceptual origins of the SSM go back to proposals in the late 1990s for a “Development Box”, but by the time of the ministerial, negotiators had been unable to agree on the purpose of the safeguard, or how it would work, including the agricultural products it would cover, how it would be triggered, the remedies (additional tariffs) allowed, or the transparency requirements for its operation. The SSM was therefore one of the least “stabilized” parts of the text placed before ministers in July 2008. Members were far from reaching a shared understanding of the SSM, which resulted in a fiasco that might have been avoided. Ministers should not have been asked to engage in a poorly prepared discussion of a sensitive issue, because inevitably they staked out incompatible positions. Members may subsequently find it difficult to back down.