Trade ministers appear unable to bridge a gap between emerging and developed nations that could break the eight-year stalemate in the Doha round of trade talks.
While not formally on the agenda, the Doha round has loomed large over a World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in Geneva this week.
World leaders, including those in the key Group of 20 emerging and developed nations, have pledged to finalise the tortuous global trade liberalisation talks in 2010, but a deal is not yet ready.
On the opening day WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy warned ministers and senior officials from 153 member states that time was running out, even though about 80 per cent of the deal had been clinched.
"The moment of truth is fast approaching when you will have to decide whether the 2010 target can be met. Political leaders are practically unanimous that they want to meet it, but reaffirmation is not enough," said Lamy.
Emerging and developed countries appear reluctant to budge over the level of cuts to agriculture subsidies and industrial product tariffs.
US trade representative Ron Kirk indicated that his country was ready to move to the final stages of negotiations provided agreement led to real new "meaningful" market opportunities in manufacturing and services as well as farming, the main focus of poor countries.
"For our part the United States negotiating team is ready to move into the end game," he said.
Kirk urged all 153 WTO members, particularly emerging economies like Brazil, India and China, to show greater leadership and to get "out of their comfort zones".
But many countries hold the US responsible for dragging its feet over the Doha talks, as issues from healthcare to Afghanistan have higher priority in Washington.
Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said: "It is unreasonable to expect that concluding the Round would involve additional unilateral concessions from developing countries."
Swiss Economics Minister Doris Leuthard told journalists on Tuesday that Switzerland could not make any further concessions on agriculture.
"I have done my best. I can't go any further. In Switzerland we will already have to pay a high price," she said.
Under the current draft, Swiss farmers may lose 30-50 per cent of their earnings, the minister added.
Leuthard said progress on the Doha round was still "slow and not good enough".
The Swiss have proposed to assess the state of play next spring to see whether Doha is "do-able" in 2010.
Swiss ambassador to the WTO, Luzius Wasescha, felt there was political readiness to engage from all sides.
"But the starting points are different," he lamented.
"I have the impression the Americans think they have already paid after announcing drastic reductions of tariff peaks for non-agricultural market access issues and expect others to deliver."
Some analysts are sceptical about a breakthrough next year.
"The fact they were unable to call a big ministerial meeting in Geneva is telling," WTO expert Joost Pauwelyn, from the Geneva-based Graduate Institute, told swissinfo.ch.
Simon Evenett, a trade expert at the Centre for Economic Policy Research, was more categorical.
"There's not a hope of it happening next year," he told The Guardian newspaper.
Evenett said negotiations had become "impossibly complex" with so many countries now involved.
Doubts were also cast this week over the relevance of the Doha round to deal with challenges that have arisen since its launch.
The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, which estimated potential gains at only $70 billion (SFr70 billion), said the Doha accord would have little impact on current global economic problems.
"World trade and the world economy have changed profoundly since 2001," it said in a study, noting that commodity market strains and environmental pressures were not part of the original Doha agenda.
This week's conference fell on the tenth anniversary of the "Battle in Seattle", when 100,000 protestors took to the streets contributing to the collapse of the Third WTO ministerial conference in the US city.
A 5,000-strong anti-WTO demonstration in Geneva on Saturday turned violent with several hundred protesters smashing the windows of banks, shops and hotels and setting cars on fire.
Despite similar violent images, ten years later the approach is very different, said Pauwelyn, with NGOs "part of the game" and pursing a "more productive" strategy.
"Protestors have been really educating themselves and are influencing the system from the inside," he said.
Simon Bradley in Geneva, swissinfo.ch
Seventh WTO ministerial meeting in Geneva
Delegates from over 100 countries took part in the Seventh WTO ministerial meeting from November 30 to December 2, 2009.
The meeting was designed to look at "the big WTO picture", with a general theme for discussion: The WTO, the Multilateral Trading System and the Current Global Economic Environment.
While not on the official agenda, the WTO's long-sought Doha liberalisation round was a major topic of discussion in Geneva.
Some 5,000 people took part in a demonstration against WTO in Geneva on November 28. The protest turned violent when around 200 masked demonstrators rampaged through the city smashing shop and bank windows and setting several cars on fire.