In this paper I seek to both characterise and assess the recent wave of regional agreements in the trading system which has accelerated since 2000. Nearly 400 agreements now exist, and, according to WTO analysis, by 2008 a significant number of countries will be party to more than 30 agreements. I suggest these agreements are characterised by several central features: substantial diversity in form, broadened coverage of issues to the degree that RTAs seemingly now provide a platform to which a range of issues are appended; vagueness in language and commitment so that they should be understood as much as process agreements as mutual limitations on trade restriction measures; and in may cases sharp asymmetries of partner size.
I suggest that a number of factors account for growth in these agreements. These include the use of RTAs as a platform to append a range of issues for targeted bilateral negotiation; the failure of multilateral negotiation to extend bargaining to non-trade issues since the Uruguay Round; the prospect of limited failure of the multilateral process; the demonstration effect of large entities going regional and smaller entities seeking safe-haven agreements with their most important large partners; and the uses of agreements by politicians and negotiators to demonstrate action and negotiation seeking advancement.
I conclude by suggesting that, after a minimalist conclusion to the Doha Round, weakened multilateralism may well only accelerate this process.