WSJ on WTO: agenda, primer, hilarious editorial

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Fri Nov 26 10:05:02 PST 1999

Wall Street Journal - November 26, 1999

Global Trade Talks Are Almost Certain, And Their Success May Be Set in Seattle


WASHINGTON -- Trade ministers are almost certain to launch a global round of trade talks next week in Seattle, but they face many obstacles before their conference can be labeled a success.

U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky says that 90 of the 134 nations in the World Trade Organization already have agreed to participate in new negotiations -- although they are fighting over the agenda for the WTO talks. Two sectors, agriculture and services, were slated for further negotiations in a 1993 global trade pact. Those sectors will form the heart of the coming trade round.

WTO members are bickering over the other areas to be included in the round during the three-day session, which begins Tuesday. For the WTO session to be a success, trade experts say, the participants must agree to add new sectors for negotiations and to set firm deadlines to finish the talks. Without such provisions, the meeting won't have accomplished anything beyond what was called for in the 1993 pact.

"Success would be moving forward with new negotiations and not excluding important areas," says Jeffrey Schott, a trade analyst at the Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank. Ms. Barshefsky says she wants the WTO members to agree to make their initial offers for trade liberalization by September 2000 and to finish negotiations in three years. That would be a far faster pace than the most recent round of trade negotiations, dubbed the Uruguay Round, which dragged on for eight years.

Warnings of a Collapse

WTO members from Europe and developing nations have been warning that the Seattle meeting could collapse without even an agreement to start minimal negotiations. But that is highly unlikely, because of the commitment concerning agriculture and services and because of the fear that such an outcome would give a huge boost to the many opponents of liberalized trade.

"At the end it will all come together because it has to come together," says Ms. Barshefsky. "Everyone knows that failure is not an option."

President Clinton will address the trade ministers Wednesday in an effort to shape their discussions and to argue for the need to include labor and environmental issues. Organized labor and environmentalists make up the bulk of the protesters who are expect to descend on Seattle next week.

White House Effort Flops

The White House had been hoping to convince other world leaders to attend the Seattle meeting, as reported in the Financial Times and New York Times. But the efforts flopped.

WTO members are cutting deals to get their top priorities included in the coming negotiations. The U.S. wants a ban on taxes on electronic commerce, a reduction in agricultural subsidies and steep tariff cuts. The European Union backs the U.S. push on tariff cuts. But along with Japan, it wants to limit agricultural liberalization.

The U.S. is also squabbling with developing nations, which oppose a U.S. call to link trade with labor and environmental standards. Meanwhile, the U.S. opposes proposals from developing nations that wealthy nations should ease "dumping" rules that block imports at prices lower than those charged in the home market.


A Question-and-Answer Guide to Issues, Players at the WTO Meeting in Seattle


WASHINGTON -- Trade ministers from 134 countries are about to descend on Seattle for the World Trade Organization's third big meeting since the group was formed at the start of 1995.

The trade ministers, who begin convening on Tuesday, will be joined by thousands of protesters who are upset about what they call unchecked global capitalism. In addition, about 3,000 reporters will accompany the protesters and the ministers, watching and recording every punch in next week's big Battle in Seattle.

But what's the fuss all about? Here's a guide to the issues and the players.

Question: What is the World Trade Organization, and why is it meeting in Seattle?

Answer: Think of the WTO as the Supreme Court of global trade. The Geneva-based organization is the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (otherwise known as GATT), and regulates things such as tariff levels. Every two years or so, trade ministers of the countries that belong to the WTO meet to hash out their differences. This year, the U.S. is hosting the meeting in Seattle.

Q: What's the biggest thing the WTO plans for the Seattle meeting?

A: The trade ministers plan to launch a new round of global trade talks with the aim of further liberalizing global commerce. The last round took seven years to complete, but the WTO ministers say that this time they can wrap things up sooner, in three years.

Q: Who is in the WTO?

A: There are 134 countries in the WTO, and guess who's coming to dinner soon? China. The U.S. and China just reached an agreement that will allow the world's largest Communist country to enter the world's ultimate Capitalist Club. Once China gets in, the only big country not in the WTO will be Russia.

Q: Who's the big driver behind the WTO?

A: The U.S. While President Clinton and his deputies will make a lot of noise about how the WTO is an instrument for poor countries as well as rich ones, behind the scenes, the U.S. runs the show along with its sidekick, the European Union. Japan puts in its two cents now and then, but the U.S. and Europe drive the free-trade process.

Q: Aside from Pat Buchanan, who doesn't like the WTO?

A: The Lefties, the Righties, the Hippies, the environmentalists, the labor unions, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, North Carolina and South Carolina, French farmers, Japanese rice farmers, the Free Burma Coalition, and ACT-UP, the AIDS activists. And thousands more.

Q: Good grief! Why are all these people opposed to the WTO?

A: Many people believe the trade organization symbolizes corporate greed run amok. Opponents say the WTO puts free trade above the environment, human rights, and labor rights. Lawmakers from textile states in the American South say their constituents are losing jobs to low-wage countries, thanks to free trade. Labor unions in the U.S. and Europe complain about the same thing. French farmers and Japanese rice farmers don't want to see their agriculture subsidies go down the tubes. The Free Burma Coalition thinks the rest of the world should restrict trade with Burma because of human-rights violations. And ACT-UP says U.S. trade policy protects drug makers, keeping prices high and thus preventing most developing nation AIDS patients from getting cheap generic drugs.

Q: So why do so many governments support the WTO?

A: WTO supporters believe free trade drives economic growth, and they credit the organization's support for eliminating trade barriers with unprecedented growth world-wide.

Q: Could all the protesters stop the WTO from launching a new round of trade talks?

A: Probably not -- unless so many show up that they really shut down the city and scare the trade ministers away.

Q: What big issues will the ministers discuss in Seattle?

A: Agriculture, electronic commerce, labor rights, antidumping, and the environment.

On agriculture, the U.S. wants to get rid of farm subsidies, particularly in Europe and Japan. Europe wants to clamp down on genetically modified food coming from the U.S. Expect to see the two sides tip these contentious issues over to the new round of negotiations.

On electronic commerce, the U.S. wants a moratorium on tariffs. It will only get a temporary one, which the Clinton administration will characterize as a victory.

On labor rights, the U.S. and a few European countries (notably Norway and Switzerland) are pushing to get the WTO to establish a working group on labor. Developing countries object strenuously. They see an eventual linking of trade and labor rights, and believe labor unions will get a foot in the door. It's tough to see how America can win this one.

On antidumping, Japan, Mexico and the rest of the world hate U.S. antidumping laws, which punishes countries that "dump" products here at below-market prices. But labor unions and steel companies in America like the law, so it is unlikely the U.S. can give any ground here.

On the environment, the U.S. wants to slash tariffs on wood products, which environmentalists say will encourage deforestation. With thousands of environmental activists heading to Seattle to protest, this one is a tossup.

Q: When will all of this get settled?

A: Remember, all they're doing next week in Seattle is launching a new round. Most of this stuff won't get settled until they conclude the round. That won't be until 2002 -- at the earliest.


[editorial] Review & Outlook WTO Woodstock

There are a lot of heavy issues confronting the upcoming WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle. Toxic waste, debt forgiveness, genetic engineering, child labor, threatened indigenous tribes, endangered trees and turtles, AIDS, pollution--and that's just the protest menu. The official agenda for the meeting is trade, specifically trade liberalization. But it's going to be hard to hear what the assembled worthies are saying above the din of tens of thousands of activists converging on Seattle for the mother of all protests.

Already the anti-WTO bash is under way. In Washington last week, a gaggle of anarchists and other angries muscled their way into the office of U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. "Kill the WTO," screamed one group. "Essential medicines for all nations," demanded another.

And check out the Web site of the Ruckus Society at Its Globalize This! page has been salivating for weeks at the thought of making mischief in Seattle. The best section is the Action Handbook, packed with suggestions for attention-getting stunts such as "How To Hang Yourself From An Urban Structure," complete with an equipment list (carabiners, slings and one rope tied as a noose), a helpful illustration and a detailed safety warning ("a good activist is a living activist"). Ruckus also wants to help free Tibet, a good thought, but for now all roads lead to Seattle.

What a motley crew. Marching and shouting alongside Third World peasants, nongovernmental organizations from every corner of the globe and the bolshie fringe groups who denounce these NGOs as "collaborationist proponents of capitalism with a human face" will be representatives of more upscale groups like Greenpeace. Seattle churches have organized huge clumps of parishioners to parade for debt forgiveness for poor nations. Machinists from Boeing have been assigned as marshals for an advertised protest march on the WTO of 50,000 local unionists.

It had to happen: Woodstock meets the Non-Aligned Movement. Only this time around, it's not about love.

It would be funny if it weren't so sad. It's obvious why U.S. labor leaders say they are for fair trade, which translates as "you buy from us but we won't buy from you." They have every incentive to keep U.S. workers locked into dead-end jobs that people at the lowest end of the educational and skill chain can perform just as well, and need more, in other countries. The more Americans move up into white collar jobs, the less union dues money and power there will be for the high-living labor officials.

But what about everybody else? It's difficult to know exactly what's going on, though it would be interesting to learn just who paid for all those NGO air tickets to Seattle, not to mention how much medicine for the world's poor that money might have bought. Of course, everybody loves a circus.

Then there is the view, recently reported by the Journal's Bob Davis, that the explosion of advocacy groups at Seattle may be a sign that we have entered into yet another of those eras where so many people are so rich and comfortable--especially in the West--that they can afford to fixate on notions of how awful everything is. Presumably, this is the flip side of the phenomenon that occurs in times of great danger and stress, as in Hungary during World War II, where a notoriously suicide-prone population had so many real problems to worry about that they stopped killing themselves.

If the current fixation on the WTO and free trade as the font of all evil were just a passing spasm, we could kick back and enjoy the show. The trouble is, for every activist on the street in Seattle, there are hundreds of millions of hard-working people the world over whose own chances for the future depend very much on whether their country grows more prosperous. That means their lives depend on whether there will be a market for the goods they grow or produce. However much activists may claim the moral high ground in Seattle, they will be standing atop the prone bodies of people who hunger for the fruits of free trade.

Perhaps it's just as well that Bill Clinton, having praised and welcomed the protesters as friends of the earth at his news conference last month, apparently has failed to persuade an array of world leaders to join him in Seattle. One thing and another, this WTO meeting is not likely to be a pretty sight.

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