Robert Zoellick, a former U.S. trade negotiator under President George W. Bush, labeled as "excuses" Obama administration complaints that the so-called Doha round of global commerce talks are structurally flawed.
"I think the facts speak for themselves on whether you have excuses or leadership," he told reporters at the World Trade Organization in Geneva.
U.S. trade officials responded Monday that the administration has been a chief proponent of an ambitious Doha round, but that the way it was framed early on — putting emerging trade powers like China on a level with some of the world's poorest countries — doesn't match the new reality.
"Unfortunately, in part because of the structure of the negotiations, there has been little appetite for that sort of ambition by other major trading partners," said Carol Guthrie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office in Washington.
Zoellick said the talks need American leadership if they are to produce a new free trade deal. When the negotiations to slash tariffs worldwide were launched in the Qatari capital in 2001, many predicted the result would add billions of dollars to the global economy.
Trade diplomats now say the original targets set for the round are beyond reach because of unbridgeable differences between the United States and major developing countries such as India, China and Brazil. Instead, negotiators are looking to agree a "Doha light" package that would allow countries to save face after 10 years of costly and fruitless talks.
"The mini-deal will probably be about as hard as the big deal," Zoellick warned. Rather than aim for a more modest agreement, he urged WTO members to "double down on Doha." If countries are ambitious but fail, it will be easier to apportion blame, he said.
The World Bank chief predicted that only a push by political leaders would end what he termed a "death watch" on Doha.
"The world needs a global growth strategy and opening trade drives growth," said Zoellick. "We've seen it with proven effectiveness all throughout the past 60 or 70 years."