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editor's insight

Nevil Gibson

Unlike the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation is not a “club” largely run by its founders.

It is a broad church with three-quarters of its members being classed as “developing” economies. It is traditional for the head of the WTO to be chosen on a rotating basis from either this group or the smaller one of rich Western countries, including Japan.

For one terrible period, the normal four-year term was split between the two: New Zealand’s Mike Moore doing the first couple of years and a Thai the remainder.

Another New Zealand trade minister, Tim Groser, has now thrown his hat in the ring to succeed former French trade unionist Pascal Lamy, whose efforts to restore the Doha round have failed miserably.

But this has not halted a flow of bilateral free-trade agreements, which are highly prized in political circles but usually deliver much less in practice – one of the reasons for the failure of the multilateral Doha round.

Being accepted by the WTO doesn’t mean a country believes in free trade or is prepared to unilaterally adopt it for the good of their economies, though some have followed New Zealand’s example.

As Mr Groser sees it, the eight other candidates for the WTO job have trade minister or political credentials. All come from “developing” countries. They are Indonesia’s Mari Pangestu, as well as contenders from Ghana, Kenya, Jordan, Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico and South Korea.

No cheerleaders for free trade
Apart from Mexico, which has a free-trade agreement with the US and Canada, none of these countries can be considered free-trade cheerleaders, though individuals may be strong believers.

South Korea, for example, is a closed market for the types of goods New Zealand exports but is good at getting access for its cars and electronic goods around the world.

As Mr Groser sees it, his strongest hand isn’t his political credentials but his background as a professional trade negotiator. Other New Zealanders have followed him and have had key roles at the WTO in Geneva.

Mr Groser is also a believer in free trade as a door-opener rather than something to be resisted. His line with the Russians, who are still highly protectionist despite now being in the WTO, is to tell them to “give it a go” with a small nation such as New Zealand. So far, no luck on that score.

By contrast, Indonesia’s Ms Pengestu argues that countries like hers with millions living in poverty cannot risk opening up their markets: “A larger section of our agriculture is still subsistence farmers so we need to have instruments within the WTO to protect the livelihoods of these farmers,” she told the Wall Street Journal Asia.

It is hard to believe the WTO will make much progress while the “developing” country mentality holds sway, so all  power to Mr Groser’s arm to pull off his quest.

What they say about the Pope
Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication sparked a torrent of commentary in the secular media, much of it indulging in PC posturing that he was a hardliner and that the Roman Catholic Church was long overdue for a change.

Naturally, these changes would be to overturn the church’s teachings on celibacy and opposition to gay marriage, abortion, women priests and euthanasia – as if these touchstone issues are the dividing line between being old-fashioned and modern, or are a cure for child abuse and other failings.

In fact, the church is a far more global institution than a bunch of men adhering to tradition; it also plays a key role in the powerful social and economic forces around the world.

The church’s adherents are now mainly in emerging economies and they are well aware of the western world’s attractions and achievements.

The Christian religion eases the large-scale migration from corrupt, poor and authoritarian states to the prosperous regions of Europe, North America and Australasia for a number of reasons.

Some include the preaching of cultural values such as trust, the aspiration to better one’s life and that of the family. Where governments cannot or don't offer these, the churches have a role, just as they do to provide medical and education services.

Pope Benedict followed in a strong papal tradition of upholding absolute values – and one of the most important is freedom to worship.

For Christians, this is not available throughout the communist or Islamic world, so any tempering of the church’s position would betray its believers and not offer them the hope of living in a free society.

In their wide range of writings and preaching, Pope Benedict and his predecessor Pope John Paul II  made important pronouncements on economics and society, including the core right to ownership of property as the bulwark against tyranny.

Dangers of moral relativism
They have also constantly warned of the dangers of secularisation and loss of moral values. Although atheists and non-Christians also proclaim they, too, share these values, these are not often heard about outside a religious context.

Although an atheist, British writer Toby Young in the Daily telegraph supports the Pope’s stand against moral relativism, quoting him approvingly: "When policies do not presume or promote objective values, the resulting moral relativism tends instead to produce frustration, despair, selfishness and a disregard for the life and liberty of others."

Although Pope Benedict’s contribution to this debate was missing from local commentaries, they were a feature in major overseas newspapers. One of the best was this editorial in The Australian: Benedict has provided intellectual leadership of rare quality; his clarity of thought and his articulation of abiding theological truths have strengthened the church's doctrinal foundations during a critical period. His moniker, God's rottweiler, proved misleading; dissidents were welcomed back into the fold and he found common ground with ultra-conservatives. Benedict had little time for liberal theology, however, conscious of the dangers of departing from long-held principles.

Like New Zealand, immigration has boosted Catholicism in Australia to a level where it is followed by one four citizens.

For a sympathetic perspective, it would be hard to beat Tess Livingstone’s analysis, also in The Australian, while Peter Popham in The Independent admires Pope Benedict's ability to surprise.

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1 Comment & Question

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Just to give you some background on South Korean ecomony as I am Korean.
South Korea has FTA's with EU, Singapore, Chile and the US (with the US, there is still some obstacles but it's signed and waiting to be ratified in the US Congress). Of course they are extremely good at getting access for their goods around the world as those countries I listed have a huge share of the world ecomony.
They are in talks with NZ regarding FTA and a few other countries as we speak. So branding South Korea a closed market is reflection of your close mindedness or a clear lack of research. May be NZ goods are not competent enough for Korean consumers? Just sayin'

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