It was a noble idea — slash U.S. and European Union agricultural subsidies to “level the playing field” for third world cotton farmers. But, in the end, it came at a price higher than the United States and other developed countries were willing to pay.

Amid all the drum-beating by protesters and editorializing by national newspapers, it would have been easy for U.S. trade negotiators to cave in to demands for eliminating agricultural subsidies, particularly for cotton, over three years in the ongoing WTO negotiations.

But it also became apparent that — for all their “pontificating” about U.S and EU subsidies — countries like Brazil and the other members of the so-called Group of 21 or 22 were unwilling to open their markets in return.

And, thus, with little to show for their efforts than a fat file of press clippings, the developing countries walked out of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the WTO, seriously jeopardizing the Doha Round of World Trade Organization.

“As we approached and started this meeting, we tried to caution that too many were spending too much time pontificating, not negotiating,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, speaking to reporters following the collapse of the negotiations in Cancun.

“Whether developed or developing, there were ‘can do’ countries here, and there were ‘won't do’ countries. The harsh rhetoric of the ‘won't do’ overwhelmed the concerted efforts of the ‘can do.’”

While he didn't name names, Zoellick obviously was referring to Brazil when he said some of the larger developing countries “spent too much time with tactics of inflammatory rhetoric before getting down to negotiate. Unfortunately, many smaller developing countries couldn't make the turn that some of the other, bigger developing countries were ready to negotiate. As a result, all walked away empty handed.”

U.S. farm groups released a statement expressing disappointment in the collapse of the negotiations, but noted that the failure should be laid at the feet of developing countries that were not prepared to negotiate.

“While the failure of the Ministerial is regrettable, U.S. producer organizations agreed with the position of administration negotiators — that no agreement would be better than a bad agreement,” said the statement signed by 14 organizations.

The day the developing countries walked out, the New York Times called the proposal by four African countries to eliminate the U.S. cotton program “a fitting test case of the WTO's commitment for a level-playing field for trade in agricultural goods.” The Times also downplayed Ambassador Zoellick's efforts to focus the negotiations on the much more important issue of tariff reductions, an area that would benefit all the world's cotton producers.

Being the agricultural experts they are, the Times' editorial writers apparently considered it a good trade-off to flush the livelihoods of some 40,000 U.S. cotton farmers down the drain in exchange for a few more dollars for African farmers (which would probably be stolen by their state trading companies anyway.)

Thankfully, administration trade officials did not agree.