WTO: Kiss this Round Goodbye

January 07, 2000

Mark Weisbrot
Houston Chronicle, January 7, 2000

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, December 6, 1999
Sacramento Bee
, January 7, 2000

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON: Things were already looking a bit shaky for the World Trade Organization when President Clinton invited heads of state from all over the world to come to Seattle, and no one could fit the meetings into their schedule.

And that was before the WTO’s “Millenial Round” became, as the Wall Street Journal called it, “the Tear Gas Round.”

It was billed as the protest of the century, and it was a sight to behold: Teamsters and turtles, steelworkers and Korean rice farmers, campus activists and senior citizens, all coming together around a common goal. And neither rain nor rubber bullets, nor clouds of tear gas pumped into crowed urban streets, could stop them.

In the end, the thousand-plus non-governmental organizations that traveled to Seattle achieved their goal: the WTO has been gravely, if not mortally, wounded. There will be no major initiatives by this institution in the near future.

Protest can be particularly effective when it shines a spotlight on policies that the public would not tolerate if it were made aware of them. This is what happened in Seattle.

The Uruguay Round that created the WTO five years ago marked a major shift from the decades-old GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which had focussed mainly on reducing tariffs and quotas. It created a new set of rules, in which any number of government decisions– whether they be to protect the environment, public health, the domestic economy, or labor– can be challenged as a barrier to trade. And the accused is placed under a presumption of guilt, before a secret tribunal, whose members are likely to be unsympathetic to anything that interferes with international trade, investment, or the patent rights of big pharmaceutical companies.

For decades our political leaders have maintained that these international agreements were only designed to promote international trade, and anyone who objected was a “Neanderthal” who “opposed free trade.” That won’t fly any more. A growing number of people– including journalists– now know that these rules determine who gains and who loses from international commerce, and to a large extent from the domestic economy as well. It is no coincidence that those Americans who have lost the most from the process of corporate globalization– the bottom half of the US labor force– have little influence on their own government. Divide that clout by a thousand, and you get an estimate of how much their concerns are represented at the WTO.

The Clinton administration responded to the protests by offering to convert the WTO into an organization that actually enforces labor rights. But there is no reason to take such claims seriously.

For one thing, just look at the timetable of the Administration’s agenda. The centerpiece is a “working group on labor conditions” for this round. That means that even under the best case scenario, there can be no labor rules negotiated until the next round. The last round lasted eight years, and ended five years ago; and it would be an understatement to say that the current round is off to a slow start. Then there will be some years to implement any new rules negotiated in the round after this one. Add it all up and we are talking about twenty-five or thirty years before this remote possibility of labor rules in the WTO could conceivably become a reality.

It is also worth recalling that President Clinton made similar promises about NAFTA when he was a candidate in 1992, and they did not materialize. He nevertheless worked ferociously to push the agreement through Congress the next year, even against the majority of his own party.

The WTO will not be transformed from an organization that promotes a global “race to the bottom” in environmental standards and wages, into its complete opposite. The protesters understood this very clearly, and that is another reason why they were so effective.

The Seattle meeting and protest mark the end of era, in which trade agreements were the province of a handful of corporate lobbyists, trade lawyers, and sympathetic economists. Now the citizenry has become involved. To borrow a phrase from the WTO’s proponents, there will be no turning back the clock.

Democracy is a great thing.

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