While the number of preferential trade agreements (PTA) has increased rapidly in recent years, the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations has been deadlocked since 2006. Most PTAs were even concluded after the start of the Doha round. Does the shift to PTAs “marginalize” the multilateral system? And is there a clash between preferential and multilateral trade liberalization? To answer these questions, we build upon negotiation analysis literature, arguing that the proliferation of PTAs draws negotiating capacity away from the multilateral level and thus reduces the incentives to agree on multilateral trade agreements. The willingness of actors to move from their initial bargaining positions and make concessions at the multilateral level depends on their outside options, that is, their best or worst alternatives to a negotiated agreement. The more credible an actor’s argument that he has a good alternative to multilateralism, the greater his bargaining power will be. In order to support the argument we will analyze the negotiation process at the multilateral level and link it to PTAs under negotiation by the EU, US, Brazil, Australia, and India.

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