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The recent summit meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is proof of the value of low expectations. Growing concern about the group’s relevance and doubts about its will to act lowered the bar for defining this year’s meeting as a success. The final communique’s call for a new round of world-trade talks to begin next year met the new standard. Given the divisions within the group, that is no mean accomplishment. It is up to APEC leaders to decide whether they will continue to evaluate their performance by this yardstick, and if so, whether the annual get-together is worth the trouble.

On paper, APEC is an impressive group. Its 21 members embrace two-thirds of the world’s population, 60 percent of its output and more than half its trade. But the downside of having such a large and diverse group, whose ranks include the world’s leading economies and those that are much less developed, is the difficulty they have in finding a common denominator. When launched in 1989, APEC’s primary purpose was to work toward free trade and open markets. But reform has not been easy. The Asian financial crisis led to a backlash against globalization that has not yet subsided, despite an impressive rebound in the region. Less developed countries have grown suspicious of free trade and foster doubts about its ability to deliver real benefits to them.

This division was apparent at the economic ministers’ conference that preceded this year’s summit. The center of the controversy was the call for a new round of trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization. A Malaysian-led lobby argued that the agenda must be agreed upon before a starting date could be set. Developed nations, led by the United States, pressed hard for a call for an immediate resumption of talks, relegating concerns about the agenda to a secondary position. Predictably, a compromise was reached: The final communique called for the formulation of “a balanced and sufficiently broad-based agenda that responds to the interests and concerns of all WTO members” as soon as possible and the launch of a round in 2001.

Such Solomonic declarations are better than the alternative — a gaping hole — but it is unclear how much they help create the consensus needed to convene a new trade round. In other words, summits create the risk of failure. APEC leaders have to decide whether the results justify the risk.

The summit is, after all, a relatively new component. APEC was founded in 1989, and U.S. President Bill Clinton upgraded the status of the concept when he called for a leaders’ summit at the meeting he hosted in Seattle in 1993. The tradition has continued. The gathering can be valuable: In the wings, there are a flurry of bilateral meetings. But with lame-duck leaders — Mr. Clinton, for one — and others whose survival is unclear — Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, Philippines President Joseph Estrada, Peru’s President Alberto Fujimori, Canadian Prime Minister Jacques Chretien and Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai — the value of such meetings is considerably diminished.

That is not to say that APEC itself is of limited significance. In recent years, the group has shifted its focus away from purely trade issues to embrace a range of technical matters of great significance to the region. For example, the information-technology revolution has drastically changed the economies and societies of industrialized nations. But differing levels of development threaten to create a “digital divide” between rich and poor countries. This year, APEC addressed this gap for the first time, promising in the communique to see that all its members’ citizens have access to the Internet and its services and information by 2010.

The details of this initiative need to be filled in. But previous efforts to create working groups for regional businesses and to push for environmental programs and other technical standards are proof that there does not have to be a gap between the forum’s ideals and its actions.

Clearly, APEC is not irrelevant. The challenge is to make it more relevant. Offering North Korea the opportunity to observe working-group meetings as a guest and holding out the prospect of future membership is one way to do just that. If Pyongyang decides to follow up, it would be the first time that the regime has joined an international economic body. Membership could help tutor the country when it decides to end its self-imposed isolation. Programs like that are the best way to give APEC a future. That would restore some of the shine to a much-maligned group and help redeem the promise that was present at its inauguration over a decade ago.

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