The WTO is surely one of the most cliche-riddled bodies in the world as diplomats compete in a game of words to describe sometimes impenetrably complex trade issues. Even if the metaphors only sometimes add substance, catchy phrases usually mean more to people outside the rarified air of global commerce. The WTO has been saying for months that "time is running out." The organization's former director-general Supachai Panitchpakdi cried crisis over a year ago, warning his finger was hovering over "the panic button," even if he had yet to press it. Since then, the Geneva-based body has approached "the point of no return," reached "the edge of the cliff," "crossed the Rubicon" and faced its share of "do-or-die" deadlines. The WTO's current chief Pascal Lamy has alternately described himself as the organization's shepherd, nurse, midwife and conductor. He is also fond of referring to the round as a marathon or a jet plane, and the organization as a football team. Does that suggest that he is the pacesetter, pilot or coach? Lamy's biggest test in metaphor mechanics came after the WTO's trade summit last year in Hong Kong, more noteworthy in the end for its large protests and political finger-pointing than any market-opening deals. Citing the gathering's minor achievements, he declared the round back on track, even though the tough decisions were pushed back until this summer. "We now have enough fuel in the tank to cruise at the right negotiating altitude now," he said. With the year's first deadline in April fast approaching, top trading officials jumped on the bandwagon, adding new turns of phrase if little substance. India's Trade and Industry Minister Kamal Nath _ who was the first to downplay hopes ahead of Hong Kong, or "recalibrate the level of ambition" _ warned of the EU and U.S. creating a "suicide round." Former U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman called April 30 the "drop dead date" for negotiations and six top trading powers met in London in March to break the logjam. After apparently little progress was made, all were eager to cite progress. "We made progress on narrowing the concepts of numbers," Portman told reporters afterward. He didn't explain further. Not to be outdone, Nath esoterically added that the meeting was useful for defining "elasticities;" Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim cited the lack of "a click" necessary to reach a deal. After Lamy cancelled the "drop dead" session, he called this week's gathering _ dubbed in WTO jargon the "full modalities meeting" _ in its place. In recent weeks, Lamy has sounded the warning anew. The marathon runner has warned of "hitting the wall," a runner's term for the point of near exhaustion toward the end of the race. In May he switched to security alert levels, saying that "we are now in the red zone" due to a lack of movement. However, he suggested there was still room to recover because countries had yet to reach "the red part of this red zone."Despite my flippancy about the rhetoric, the collapse of the Doha round would be a very, very, very bad thing. To understand why, consider Greg Mankiw's point: [S]uccess in the Doha round of international trade talks would give the world more every year than what [Warren] Buffett can give once after a lifetime of being the world's most successful investor.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.