LONDON: When Pascal Lamy took over as director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WHO) last September, one official said he would have to be "Pascal Zorro" to fulfill all the expectations heaped upon him.
A little over six months later, the Doha round of global trade talks that are Mr Lamy's main preoccupation have given little impression, at least to the outside world, of making progress. The latest ministerial meeting in London produced many warm words but few concrete announcements of the trade-offs to be made between liberalisation of goods, services and agriculture.
Could it be time for Zorro to intervene and save the day by suggesting a solution?
Perhaps but not yet, is the consensus among WTO officials, representatives of member countries and other interested parties. The WTO, much more than institutions like the World Bank, is an organisation driven by its member countries, not led from the top.
Claude Barfield, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says Mr Lamy should wait until the end-April deadline to agree the "modalities", a framework agreement with numbers. "If it becomes clear that countries are failing to meet deadlines, it would be foolish not to consider a draft text from Lamy as an external reference. "
There have been times when a trade round, deadlocked by tactical and actual intransigence, has benefited from such intervention. While the WTO's director-general can take the initiative to push the round to an end, it is a high-risk strategy that has to be timed just right.
A solution proposed from outside can break the deadlock if all parties are secretly prepared to make concessions to secure a deal but are unable, whether through tactical considerations or because of pressure from domestic lobbies, to be seen to make the first move.
The previous Uruguay round of talks, which ended in 1994, illustrates both the potential and the danger of interventions. In December 1991 Arthur Dunkel, then director-general, tried to kick life into a drifting process by circulating a draft agreement that brought all the strands of the talks -- goods, services, intellectual property rights and so forth -- into a single deal.
At the time he got little thanks. The EU, pushed by France, refused to accept the "Dunkel draft" as a basis for negotiation. Some developing countries also objected, saying they had been given a take-it-or-leave-it option. But it turned out to be the basis of the final agreement two years later.
The next big intervention was even riskier. Peter Sutherland, himself a former EU commissioner, was installed as director-general in 1993 at the personal behest of US trade representative Mickey Kantor and EU trade commissioner Leon Brittan. More outspoken and flamboyant than traditional DGs, Mr Sutherland, now chairman of BP and Goldman Sachs International, was what baseball fans would call a "closer" - a new pitcher introduced in the dying stages of a game to secure victory.
In a high-risk strategy, he publicly announced a make or-break deadline date of December 15, 1993 and declared that the round would have failed had agreement not been reached by then. "I was brought in when the Uruguay Round was nearly complete," says Mr Sutherland. "Maybe a little bullying was required and that is what I had to do."
By common consent, the Doha round has not yet reached that point. Things will be different, though, if the April deadline comes and goes with no prospect of rapid resolution.
"There may come a time when someone -- God or Pascal Lamy -- comes up with a package," says one trade official from a rich nation. "But negotiators will have to be desperate, and we're not that desperate yet."