IN OTHER WORDS: On the brink

With the global economy slowing, prices soaring for oil and food and protectionist passions boiling up everywhere, it is an especially dangerous time to give up on international trade negotiations. Unfortunately, the world’s leading trading nations seem ready to abandon the World Trade Organisation’s seven-year effort to reduce some of the world’s obstacles to trade. The talks, initiated in 2001 in Doha, Qatar, were supposed to help the world’s poorest countries. At marathon meetings this week in Geneva, the US offered to further lower the ceiling for its agricultural subsidies — to roughly $15 billion a year from the current $48 billion. Europe — with France objecting — also fleshed out a new offer.

We fear the whole process is on the verge of collapse. This is the last chance to get a deal during the Bush administration, experts say. And if talks fail to make substantial progress, the new US president will probably want to start from scratch. A breakdown of the Doha talks would also weaken the WTO at a moment when the world needs a credible international body to mediate trade disputes. If the world’s richest nations give in to the temptations of protectionism, the world’s poorest countries will suffer the most. But no one, including the rich nations, will escape the damage to the global economy.