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Too Serious For Trade Minsters?

Juliane Von Reppert-Bismarck

Celso Amorim, Brazil"s foreign minister and long-serving trade chief, is not one to dodge a spat. At World Trade Organization talks in Geneva last week over a global rulebook slated to boost world wealth by billions and lift millions out of poverty, he compared the U.S. and Europe"s tactics to those of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. But when the talks collapsed in acrimony over protection for farmers in developing nations, Amorim was shocked. He spoke to NEWSWEEK"s Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck. Excerpts:

Von Reppert-Bismarck: What went wrong in Geneva?

Amorim: It was a big failure. When we were in our final meeting-the European Union, the U.S., Brazil, China, India, Australia, Japan-it was the Europeans, ourselves, the Australians and Japan trying to push the deal. But in the end there was no agreement. It will take a long time, three or four years, to come as close to a deal as we were this time. The problem is, most trade negotiators respond to lobbies, they count their votes in Congress, in Parliament. Maybe we need people who deal more politically with this. It was the September 11 attacks that launched these talks-it was supposed to be about economic, but also about political, accord. A French politician last century said, "War is too serious to be left to the generals." Maybe trade negotiations are too serious to be left to the trade negotiators.

What role did China play?

Amorim: The Chinese were much more proactive. In the past, when a minister arrived in a negotiating room, it was a very static thing, with the minister reading a statement and not really interacting. Now it was different; he was saying things that hadn"t been scripted. The Chinese were also more active talking to other developing countries. You can"t yet say they were a leader. But they were very engaged.

Does it matter there"s no deal?

Amorim: Not having a deal implies there will be pressure for bilateral and regional deals. The EU and the U.S. are close to agreements with South Korea. We"ll be engaging with the EU in the next year or so. But it"s not ideal. The more diversified a country"s trading pattern-and Brazil"s is very diversified, conducting 25 percent of its trade with Latin America, 25 percent with Europe, 15 percent with the U.S., 15 percent with Asia-the more complicated it is to make the right deals with the right countries. And crucial things, such as farm subsidies that distort markets, cannot be solved in bilateral deals. I mean, how can I come to the U.S. and say, "Please do away with domestic subsidies"? They"ll say, "You"re kidding." You can only do these kind of deals in a setting like the WTO, where the table is big enough for big trade-offs.

How will the stage have changed by the time talks resume?

Amorim: Think about it: three or four years ago, when you spoke with a country like Mauritius or Ghana, they were only interested in selling to Europe or the U.S. Now they"ve come to the conclusion that this dependence is a bad thing. There is a change of mind. China is in Africa; Brazil is more present in Africa. That"s why I think the U.S. made a mistake. When we resume this round, the pressure on the U.S. to do away totally with subsidies to American farmers will be bigger.

Barack Obama has shown skepticism-will it be harder to revive talks if he"s elected?

Amorim: It"s one thing to be in the lowlands of politics. It"s quite another when you are in the tower of power and see things the way they really are. After all, Bill Clinton finalized the NAFTA deal that George H.W. Bush started. But the very fact that the U.S. can have a presidential candidate with a grandmother living in Kenya is breaking ground in new thinking.

Is a BRIC alliance cohering between Brazil, Russia, India and China?

Amorim: You have a new configuration of power appearing in the world. Today, the BRICs have some common interests. Some of us will have a big influence in trade, such as Brazil, others on security affairs. Climate change, the fuel crisis, even the world economy: we need to talk and find common views. There will be a meeting of BRIC economy ministers in November in Brazil, and heads of state will also be meeting, in New York. We can"t be conditioned by the views coming from the U.S. and EU. We have to look from our own perspective. We live in a world where multiple alliances are forming, and this may be one of them.

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