The private arm-twisting before the handshakes

Stephen Beard Feb 2, 2007

The private arm-twisting before the handshakes

Stephen Beard Feb 2, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: There was a bit of economic policy news that snuck in under the radar this week. I guess it got lost between the GDP and unemployment reports. In his big State of the Economy speech Wednesday, President Bush asked Congress to extend what’s called fast-track negotiating authority. That’s where he gets to make trade deals Congress can’t change.

A key member of the new Democratic majority, Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, said he’s willing to work with the White House to make fast-track happen.

That’s the high-profile side of global trade negotiations. Most of the hard work is done behind closed doors. Our Stephen Beard has been trying to learn some of the tricks of the trade from the people doing the heavy lifting.

CHARLENE BARSHEFSKY: Typically, negotiators have robust authority, aren’t afraid of conflict. You have to have a stomach for a negotiation. It’s not pretty.

STEPHEN BEARD: Charlene Barshefsky has a needle-sharp brain but a thick skin also came in handy as a U.S. trade negotiator in the 1990s:

BARSHEFSKY: I’ve been in rooms where the other negotiator bangs the fist on the table, scowls, glares, gets up, walks out.

Often just tactical maneuvers. Part of the emotional warfare involved in trade bargaining. Sleep deprivation is another weapon, says Zanny Minton-Beddoes, a veteran observer of trade talks for the Economist Magazine.

ZANNY MINTON-BEDDOES: Basically nobody does anything very much all day. And then you negotiate all through the night. And there always is a kind of marathon, last minute, all-night negotiation. And those negotiators who can survive on the least sleep and don’t mind carrying on at 3 in the morning are the ones that do best.

The ones who usually do best behind closed doors are the Americans and the Europeans. For one thing, they have on their side of the table the trade negotiators’ ultimate weapon: lawyers.

AILEEN KWA: They have one lawyer for every single paragraph that you are negotiating. And you are here sitting there negotiating the whole text by yourself.

Aileen Kwa, co-author of “Behind the Scenes at the WTO.”

KWA: So you could have one person versus 20 people on the other side. I mean, this is how unequal it is.

And, of course, the U.S. and the E.U. have more bargaining power. Bigger markets to open or close. Aid to offer or withhold. Kwa claims that some poor African countries have been quietly threatened with the loss of aid unless they accept the U.S. or E.U. line. They’ve had to succumb.

KWA: Definitely. Because for many of the small, low-income countries, aid makes up to 40 percent of their budgets.

Samuel Amehou is trade negotiator for the West African state of Benin. Representing his country’s cotton farmers in the WTO talks, he’s had virtually no leverage.

SAMUEL AMEHOU: It’s very tough. It’s not easy to be able to make their case.

So far he’s failed to persuade the U.S. to stop subsidizing American cotton farmers. Increasingly he and his colleagues look beyond the closed doors of the negotiating room, and aim their message at the American public. At a news conference, his trade minister made his point sartorially:

AMEHOU: He wore a dark suit, a dark shirt with a white tie. And he began his statement saying: “I am mourning. Why? Because these African cotton farmers are dying.”

Which will prove more effective? Public theater or private arm twisting? We will only know for sure when the negotiators buckle down and get bargaining again.

In London this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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