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CFR's Jagdish Bhagwati Argues Against Preferential Trade Agreements in New Book; Recommends Completion of Multilateral Doha Round

July 16, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations

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Contact: CFR Communications, 212-434-9888, communications@cfr.org

In his new book, Termites in the Trading System: How Preferential Agreements Undermine Free Trade, Council Senior Fellow for International Economics Jagdish Bhagwati argues that so-called Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), which he maintains are in fact Preferential Trade Agreements (PTAs) involving two or more countries, actually set back the cause of free trade and undermine the multilateral trading system.

He writes that FTAs make global multilateral agreements more, not less, difficult. "The current tide of preferences has been a result of politicians mistakenly, and in an uncoordinated fashion, pursuing free trade agreements because they think (erroneously) that they are pursuing a free trade agenda."

Bhagwati makes the case against PTAs for several reasons:

  • PTAs undermine multilateral trade negotiations such as the Doha Round and divert diplomats and negotiators away from attention to the World Trade Organization.
  • Because every country negotiates different trading terms in each particular PTA with every other different country, each with their own loopholes, exceptions, and particular regulations, this collectively turns world trade into an indecipherable mess. "Crisscrossing PTAs, where a nation has multiple PTAs with other nations, each of which then had its own PTAs with yet other nations, was inevitable. Indeed, if one only mapped the phenomenon, it would remind one of a child scrawling a number of chaotic lines on a sketch pad…[or a] spaghetti bowl…"

Bhagwati proposes that the Doha Round be completed expeditiously and U.S. trade policy be redirected from proliferating FTAs. "Preferential trade agreements have slowed down our progress on the multilateral freeing of trade, as with the Doha Round. The Doha Round's success is essential to strengthening the multilateral trading system, which is beneficial to all."

Advance Praise for Termites in the Trading System

"The world's foremost trade policy scholar explains why what he calls 'preferential trade arrangements' are not a path towards global free trade, but a dangerous step away from it. A long-standing and brave opponent of these arrangements, and particularly of those between hegemonic powers and developing countries, Jagdish Bhagwati explains how they promote costly trade diversion, interfere with the efficient operation of global business and allow great powers to extract unjustified concessions from weaker countries. This book underlines the abiding wisdom of non-discrimination, the now almost completely forgotten founding principle of the world trading system, and concludes that the only way to return to sanity is by movement towards free market access for all."

Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator, Financial Times

"The founding fathers of the postwar trading system wisely chose non-discrimination as its central principle. But the last fifteen years have witnessed its erosion due to the proliferation of Preferential Trading Agreements. Jagdish Bhagwati, the leading trade economist of our time, rang first the alarm bells about the resulting spaghetti bowl of discriminatory rules and regulations. Now, with his usual blend of brilliance, wit and bluntness, he describes the rise of PTAs and analyzes why it has occurred and how it threatens the multilateral trading system. This book is essential reading not only for economists and trade diplomats, but for anyone concerned with the design of the institutions that are central to our prosperity."

Andre Sapir, professor of economics, Université Libre de Bruxelles, former economic adviser to European Commission president Romano Prodi (2001-2004)

To order, visit http://www.cfr.org/termites_in_the_trading_system

Jagdish Bhagwati is a senior fellow for international economicsat the Council on Foreign Relations and university professor of economics and law at Columbia University. He was also a special adviser to the UN on globalization, and economic policy adviser to the Director general, GATT.  Bhagwati  is the author of several books, including In Defense of Globalization (Oxford University Press, 2004) and Free Trade Today (Princeton University Press, 2002). He has received several honorary degrees and awards, including the Bernhard Harms Prize (Germany), the Thomas Schelling Award (Harvard), the Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy, and the Freedom Prize, which he shared with Sir Leon Brittan.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.