GENEVA — The United States, China and other commercial powers will spearhead a new attempt next week to find ways to revive world trade and drag the global economy out of recession.
The World Trade Organization has called trade chiefs from its 153 members to Geneva for the first ministerial conference in four years, at a time when global exports are falling rapidly and the WTO's long-sought Doha liberalization round is limping into its ninth year.
Instead of sensitive tariff and subsidy negotiations, the conference running Monday through Wednesday will focus on the big picture — stabilizing and rejuvenating commerce in the face of increased protectionism, unemployment and exporting of jobs.
In doing so, the WTO hopes to avoid the acrimony and sometimes violent protests that plagued previous ministerial conferences in Seattle in 1999; Cancun, Mexico, in 2003; and Hong Kong in 2005.
"What is needed more than anything in the current economic situation is a platform for ministers to review the functioning of this house," WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy told members earlier this month.
The agenda is split between a review of the trade body's activities and a section titled the "WTO's contribution to recovery, growth and development." It will address the WTO's monitoring o f trade disputes, vigilance against new trade barriers and aid for developing nations.
Protests are planned as at earlier conferences, but they are expected to be smaller as anti-globalization anger has waned with the failure in recent years to conclude the Doha round talks.
The negotiations launched in Qatar's capital in 2001 and seek to remove commercial barriers on the theory that it would make products cheaper for citizens around the world to buy. Talks are already six years behind schedule and have been left off the agenda for the Monday-Wednesday meeting.
Still, some 2,700 delegates and 500 nongovernmental organizations are expected.
Ministers will discuss the WTO's monitoring of trade restrictions in regular reports that the trade body credits with helping to ensure that governments avoid tit-for-tat retaliation as they look to protect wobbly industries and secure domestic jobs.
While an across-the-board Doha deal remains a goal for 2010, the gathering will focus on smaller initiatives to boost commerce, such as aid projects for impoverished African countries that are tailored to help them export more goods.
Some developing nations led by Brazil and India are taking matters into their own hands.
A "South-South" agreement would lower tariffs on some goods traded by nearly two dozen countries by 20 percent, according to a framework deal reached this week in Geneva. It would also include wide loopholes.
The agreement will be formally signed by ministers from the participating countries on the last day of the WTO conference.
Some of the world's most pressing trade problems won't be addressed next week, even though the world is in the midst of an economic crisis that has caused global trade in goods to plunge 10 percent this year, the worst decline since World War II.
The fall has been caused by a number of factors: sinking global demand for domestic and foreign goods, diminished credit for exporters, the falling U.S. dollar against other currencies, and the end of an era when the United States could be relied upon to stimulate many countries by buying their cheap exports.
There's also the chorus of complaints from the West that its exporters are losing market share to competitors in China, which is accused of unfairly aiding exporters by keeping its currency low compared with the dollar. That issue, however, is unlikely to be tackled head-on.
"Currency is not our business," Lamy recently told a small group of reporters.