A Post Mortem on the Global Trade Talks in Seattle

Nov 30, 1999

Free trade, seen by many as the engine of world economic growth, has once again become the subject of bitter dispute. Nowhere was this more evident than at the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle at the end of last year. There, environmentalists joined with trade unionists and campaigners for the Third World in staging mass protests. These diverse groups claimed that the WTO is unrepresentative and undemocratic, overlooking environmental interests and those of the world's poor in favor of big business.

The European Union (EU) was another unhappy player in the Seattle trade talks. Though the newest round of trade talks was high on the EU agenda, it clashed with the U.S. on whether agriculture should be liberalized further. The two trading blocs also disagreed on health-related issues; for instance, the EU refuses to import beef from the U.S. that has been treated with growth hormones. And there were also rumblings of discontent over the import of genetically modified food, widely produced in the U.S. but feared in Europe.

How do policymakers and scholars interpret these many controversies? And what happens to the free trade agenda with the collapse of the Seattle round? (It is now uncertain whether a new trade round, aiming to extend free trade to new areas like services and e-commerce, will even be possible.) Here are excerpts from comments made by leading thinkers who have given talks at the Center since the Seattle meeting, and by the Center's resident scholars, past and present, who are doing research on trade and the environment. Note: Further opinions will be added as they are received.

Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union and president, Green Cross International (excerpted from his remarks at a 7 December 1999 Director's Forum)
. . . We need to adapt, to adjust, all international organizations to the challenges of the new times.

If [international organizations] work according to the old rules, then we will have protests and we will have criticism -- not only in Seattle, but also in other places.

The fact that there was a prolonged period of discussion about the admission of China to the World Trade Organization, and some innovative solutions were found within that organization, [is encouraging]. So I think nothing terrible has happened. It's a democratic thing that people express their opinion.

Normal protests, protests by concerned people, people who have an interest are sometimes used by rowdy and disruptive individuals. And there's a line, of course, between that. But I think there should be a serious response to what happened [in Seattle].

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (excerpted from his remarks at a 9 December 1999 Director's Forum)
I think the people of Seattle were wrong about trade, and I think that the Buchananites are wrong about isolation, because I think both are repudiations of the 21st century. I think it's sort of silly to run around and say, I don't want to live in the century you're going to be in.

But the fact is the United States has a positive role to play in the world. It will be an expensive, complicated, controversial role. And we have to spend the time domestically explaining it so that we understand why we're doing it and how to measure it.

Mark Sagoff, research scholar, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, and former fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center
European countries have resisted genetically engineered crops -- and foods that contain them -- with an energy few expected. Bowing to public pressure, the Blair government in Great Britain formally announced a moratorium on planting genetically modified (GM) crops. The European Union has adopted the same policy de facto. Americans, in comparison, have regarded with near indifference the conversion of the nation's farmland to GM corn and soybeans. Efforts by activists like Jeremy Rifkin to lead a consumer revolt against "Frankenfoods," while largely successful in Europe, have had little effect in the United States.

While Europeans busily seek to keep GM crops, largely from America, out of their fields and foods, Americans apply the same energy to excluding exotic species from our shores and to controlling or eradicating those already here. Concerns over exotic species are far greater in the United States than in Europe. European countries have done battle with particular invasive species but have no policies concerning exotics as such. A decade ago, for example, Great Britain quietly eradicated a wild population of nutria -- a large South American rodent that 1920s flappers prized for its glossy brown pelt. But its attitude towards the nutria was pragmatic -- officials regarded the creature more as a pest or inconvenience than an ecological menace. Maryland wildlife officials, in contrast, speak of the nutria in fairly apocalyptic terms. "It's like a cancer eating the marsh from the inside," said one state biologist. Is there a way to explain the different attitudes of the New and Old Worlds to engineered and to exotic species?

For Americans, farms do not belong to Nature but to commerce and industry. Americans have sought to conquer -- to control utterly -- nature in the sense of natural resources, even while fairly worshiping Nature in the sense of the wild. The boundless domestication, indeed, industrialization of agriculture, has been accompanied by the fervent protection of wilderness. Despite the lingering force of the Jeffersonian ideal of the "yeoman farmer" and the sentimental appeal of the family farm, Americans are now inured to the idea that agriculture is an industry as technologically-driven as any other. American agronomists, infused with the idea of wilderness, wonder whether genetic engineering will so increase yields that agribusiness can feed the world with less acreage and so leave more land for "Nature."

The "technological treadmill" in agriculture, far from being accepted in Europe as business as usual, threatens the very idea of nature -- the pastoral farm as depicted, say, in the paintings of Constable. The hatred of agrotechnology as an assault on nature is not new with genetic engineering. Over a century ago, John Stuart Mill condemned a landscape in which every flowery waste or natural pasture is ploughed up, "with all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man's use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture."

Europeans regard GM crops as the last stage in this process: the eradication of nature, or everything lovely and worth protecting about it, in the name of improved agriculture. The same economic and technological forces that destroyed Nature as wilderness in the United States seem poised to destroy Nature as a pastoral landscape in Europe. As much as Americans detest the assault of exotic species on our image of Nature, so the Europeans detest the assault of GM crops on theirs.

Martin Albrow, Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow and Professor of Sociology, University of Surrey Roehampton, UK. In his recent book The Global Age: State and Society Beyond Modernity, Albrow argued that globalization provided opportunities but no guidelines.


Nothing better betrays the nature of what happened with the WTO conference than its headlines. "The Battle of Seattle" takes it straight into the history books. "Sleepless in Seattle" equates it with a movie. For we all know, there were no resolutions, only media events; and the parties to Seattle had the feeling of being part of a big show none of them had planned.

"It was a mess" was the view expressed to me by the representative of an international trading organization who was present. Yet he "sympathized with the protestors," which appears to square with the President of the United States' own contribution to the confusion when, before the talks, he envisaged sanctions on poor employment standards. But is it confusion to want both free trade and the good society, or just the latest version of pragmatic politics, trying to find compromises between irreconcilable, equally logical, alternatives?

Seattle was primarily an event in the new global politics, in which, as in any other type of politics, parties make unholy alliances in their quest to control the agenda. Pure principle is a casualty, but there is a fine line between the assertion of principle and dogma. I would defy anyone to show that the idea of free trade in principle either excludes or includes worker's rights. Yet many will go to the barricades on either side, and the lack of a determinable outcome fuels the demand to end ambiguity. The point is not the logic of the arguments but the ambition to be in charge of the situation.

This further suggests a widespread conviction that there is something to be in charge of, namely, global politics itself. The importance of Seattle is that it intimates the coming consolidation of political alliances in the struggle to determine the direction of global economy and society. We should not be surprised that the alliances are unholy: First World labor unions with Third World religious representatives; transnational corporations with poor fisher people. Parties in national politics formed out of coalitions of interest, not ideology; we can expect the same in global politics.

Not all is confusion. The opposing sides reduce the complexity to one slogan, to being for or against globalization -- no matter what that might mean. For the pragmatist, it just means we have reached this point and, in the words of President Clinton, "can't turn the clock back" ("Larry King Live," 12/23/99).

Ten years of academic exploration of complexity of "globalization" shows how we can't just be for or against it when it often means contradictory things. Thus, removing barriers to free trade is globalizing; so, too, is imposing global labor standards. The WTO, the ILO, and the International Forum on Globalization are all agents of globalization in different ways. But away with these academic niceties!

Globalization as a concept is the main casualty of Seattle. There is now little hope of saving it from being simply a device for political rhetoric. The concept which has expressed, more than any other, the way the world of the 1990s was different from what went before has now fallen a victim of the very changes it proclaimed. As a battle cry, it will echo in history. For intellectual direction in the new global governance, we will have to develop a new language from now.


Stacy D. VanDeever, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of New Hampshire. He is co-editor of Saving the Seas: Values, Scientists, and International Governance and is currently working with the Center's Environmental Change and Security Project on a volume of conference proceedings on a related topic: "Protecting Regional Seas: Developing Capacity and Fostering Environmental Cooperation in Europe."
The World Trade Organization negotiations in Seattle gave us a preview of the complicated trade and environmental issues policymakers will be facing in the twenty-first century. Established trade rules and practices have run up against deeply held notions of national sovereignty and concerns for environmental protection, health, human rights, labor rights, and the safety of the workplace. Now that some of the smoke is clearing from Seattle (and Y2K hysteria has passed), it is time to take stock and draw a few lessons.

Lesson 1: Trade is rule-based, not "free." Saying that WTO participants negotiate "free trade agreements" is a misnomer. International trade, like domestic trade, is based on a detailed set of rules and norms governing conduct. So although WTO agreements (like the GATT agreements before them) have succeeded in "freeing" trade from many of the tariffs that burdened it previously, trade is by no means free -- as evidenced by the WTO agreements themselves, which are hundreds, often thousands, of pages long and filled with narrow and broad exceptions of all kinds.

The groups that gathered in Seattle were thus not debating the merits of trade and whether it should be "free" or "not free." Rather, they were debating what the rules of international trading should be. The protestors who traveled to Seattle were only too aware of this and have been educating society at large by posing pertinent questions: Do we want an international trading system that is deaf to the voices of child labor and human rights abuses? Do we want one that is indifferent to the plight of endangered species and the global environment? Does it matter that some societies object to genetically altered organisms more than others? The rules for twenty-first century international trade will continue to grapple with questions of this kind.

Lesson 2: More than ever, trade politics is a volatile combination of domestic politics and foreign policy. Political leaders and scholars alike pin vast hopes on the WTO liberal trade regime, expecting it to increase prosperity; alleviate poverty; protect labor rights; promote international peace, democratization, and societal openness; preserve the environment; lessen human rights abuses; increase market competition and efficiency; benefit consumers; and so on. Obviously, each and every one of these goals cannot be maximized at the same time. Choices will need to be made, as evidenced by President Clinton looking to the WTO to provide more access to foreign markets for US companies, more environmental protection, integration of China into international (read Western) institutions, and increased labor protection for children. Clinton's list reflects both his foreign policy goals and the pressures he is under from American interest groups.

Against this background, none of today's political players can afford to ignore the neoliberal trade agenda. Those involved in making foreign policy, for instance, cannot set policy on security and the environment without checking for WTO compliance and consistency with economic policy. Likewise, organized domestic interests no longer have the luxury of ignoring trade policy (and policymakers no longer have the luxury of being ignored). Today's trade politics involves not just the traditional players of labor unions and domestic manufacturers but also a plethora of public interest advocates. Whether advocating environmental protection, consumer rights, human rights, food safety, religious freedom, indigenous peoples, democratization, or international development, such groups simply cannot accomplish their goals without directly engaging in the trade rules debate. Furthermore, they are systematically educating their members and political allies about this fact. Prior to the American elections later this year, candidates at all levels will continuously be asked to reconcile their positions on trade with those on the environment, human rights, and related issues.

Lesson 3: The protests will continue, so be prepared. The protests in Seattle were not a one-time occurrence. While WTO reformers and opponents decried the violence (and the police conduct), the media attention emboldened the protestors, and the failure of the negotiations succeeded in raising their political profile. The protestors now have too much at stake to give up the fight for trade rules more attuned to their interests. That said, open hostility to open markets and international trade, like that sometimes espoused by Pat Buchanan, is unlikely to catch on in most Western democracies -- see Newt Gingrich (above). We have too much to lose by wholesale restrictions on trade. But consumer protection, environmental protection, and labor rights are here to stay. Most consumers believe that dolphins and child laborers should not die for cheaper consumer goods and that the contents of food should not be a secret. These people are unlikely to change their minds any time soon.

Officials in Seattle were clearly unprepared for the protests. No doubt, future host cities will be better prepared. It is policymakers who continue to look and sound unprepared. If they plan to wait and see, hoping this moment of liberal trade-skepticism will pass, they may be surprised again.

Stephen Clarkson, professor of political economy, University of Toronto, Canada, and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The author of Trudeau and Our Times and other works on Canadian politics, Clarkson is currently researching whether WTO and NAFTA constitute an "external constitution" for the three North American states of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

Martin Albrow (see above) lamented that the concept of globalization had become the casualty of political rhetoric and had in the process lost its analytical utility. As a result he feels that a new language is needed to describe what is happening to global governance.

Until we get such a new lexicon, we may have to make do by transposing our present political vocabulary to the supranational level. In so doing, it becomes apparent that, in the gradual development since World War II of a supranational political order, the creation in 1994 of the WTO marked a major and exciting advance. This substantial addition to the existing set of international institutions and regimes that comprise the emerging system of global governance was distinguished by what we could consider an embryonic constitutional order.

The evidence of what I call the "new constitutionalism" is as follows:
* The WTO is an institution with an international juridical personality that exists autonomously from its signatory member states.
* The WTO governs the trading behavior of its member states with hundreds of pages of rules based on fifty years of trade policy development culminating in the breakthroughs achieved during the Uruguay Round (1986-94). The scope of these norms has been vastly expanded to include trade in services and agricultural products, including an elaborate set of provisions governing the way scientific standards are to be applied to the trade of sanitary and phytosanitary goods such as genetically modified food. These rules have to be incorporated in the domestic law of the signatory states. Because in some cases this required radical changes in the regimes of the signatory states -- obliging them, for instance, to alter their agricultural protection schemes from quotas and other quantitative restrictions to tariffs -- they constitute substantial amendments to these states' own legal orders.
* Through its Trade Policy Review Board the WTO shows it has an administrative function. It monitors the extent to which the member states are implementing its trade rules and publishes oversight reports on each country noting where progress has been made and specifying which measures need to be changed.
* Through continuing negotiations the WTO has been able to expand its rules, demonstrating a legislative capacity to alter the regulatory framework of its members in their financial services and telecommunications sectors.
* The WTO defines rights for its constituent players, notably those of transnational corporations (TNCs) vis-a-vis member states.
* The WTO boasts an enforcement capability that enables it to apply these rules and impose a high degree of discipline on its member-states. This judicial mechanism gives the WTO's norms incomparably more heft than the idealistic formulations to be found, for instance, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the many worthy conventions of the International Labor Organization. Commercial conflicts between members are to be resolved by an independent dispute settlement board whose rulings (following the inevitable appeal to an Appellate Body) the member-states are bound to accept on pain of retaliation. This is in effect a global judiciary whose rulings declare that legislation democratically enacted by states is illegal because it contravenes the WTO's norms.

Clearly, this commercial constitutional order is only embryonic:
* Its membership is still not universal. China, Russia and a number of much smaller states have not yet been admitted.
* Its scope is uneven. Some rules such as trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs) are extremely elaborate and demanding whereas other issues such as labor standards are virtually ignored.
* Its effectiveness is still not fully established. Washington's threat to boycott the proceedings was enough to dissuade the European Union from launching a dispute with the United States over the Helms-Burton Act's violation of WTO rules.
* Its legitimacy is disputed. Cultural nationalists in France and Canada, consumers throughout Europe, and environmentalists in all countries are incensed at the WTO's dispute rulings which have consistently privileged free-trade norms over considerations of cultural diversity, long-term health risks, or environmental sustainability.
* Its responsiveness is asymmetrical. The information, entertainment and pharmaceutical TNCs got what they wanted in TRIPs, but labor and environmentalists have been largely excluded from the WTO's deliberative process.

The resulting democratic deficit lies at the heart of the anger displayed outside the closed doors of the official negotiating rooms in Seattle. These demonstrators showed the world, for the first time, components of a global civil society in action.

I have used the familiar constitutional metaphor to explain the WTO's character and functions. If my explanation is persuasive, what does it suggest about the challenges facing the WTO's next stage?

Given the many conflicts of interest between North and South, between the U.S. and the EU, between TNCs and social activists, it is unlikely that even a tranquil Seattle would have yielded a consensus on the Millennium Round's negotiating agenda. In other words, the WTO's legislative process may well mark time -- not a bad thing when so many of its rules have still to be tested in action by interpretation via dispute settlement panels.

This judicial action is likely to be much more responsive to the views expressed in Seattle's streets. Up till now the dispute panels have been fixated on rendering judgments based on the black letter of the WTO's rules. Henceforth they will be much more conscious that they have to keep in mind a second audience that is far broader than the trade lawyers and government officials with whom they were concerned in the first years of the late 1990s. Without a single new rule being drafted, the panelists and members of the Appellate Body could decide to privilege the references to international environmental treaties and to import into their judgments the values of social justice that lurk, explicit and implicit, in the WTO texts.

The administration of the global trading system is also likely to make more room for representations from civil society. The already considerable efforts made by the WTO to increase its transparency will be enhanced as it tries to become more sensitive to general demands for more people-friendly, less corporate-dominated global governance.

The global trade regime as constitutionalized six years ago was deeply flawed by its excessive incorporation of TNC interests and its inadequate responsiveness to civil society's values. Seattle's streets offered a stage for frustration over this imbalance to be expressed. To thrive in its role of supranational governing body, the WTO must anchor its constitutional legitimacy in a praxis that is sensitive to the multiple publics that will be monitoring every dispute settlement ruling it makes.

We may not yet have a language for expressing this new reality, but Seattle has changed the way we use our old notions and gives hope that they may yet be applied creatively at the supranational level of governance.

Kent Hughes, former Associate Deputy Secretary of Commerce, and Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center. Hughes is currently working on a book tracing the development of national competitiveness as an idea and a political force in the U.S., particularly during the Bush and Clinton administrations.

It is easy to downplay the Seattle demonstrations as just an exercise in street theater: the black-clad anarchists striking a blow against global capital by trashing a Starbucks coffee shop; the guru for the anarchoprimitivists calling for a return to an idyllic and idealized hunter-gatherer past; the parade of demonstrators costumed as turtles and butterflies dreaming of genetically unaltered crops.

None of the Wilson Web commentators made the mistake of simply dismissing the demonstrators. For the most part, they see the demonstrators as raising serious questions about what rules should apply to an increasingly global society. I share the other commentators' concerns about child labor, environmental degradation and the importance of human rights. I do, however, want to add a few points:

* Certain trends will persist regardless of whether global negotiations take place. Whether referred to as globalization or by a more exact vocabulary, ideas, products, investments, and technologies will continue to flow from one nation to another. America is no exception. Today, Americans listen to African pop, buy more salsa than ketchup, and follow the rush of Japanese children to buy Pokemon characters. Economies are also more tightly linked as the volume of international commerce grows. And we are continuing the trend to trading parts rather than products at the same time as companies are adopting a just-in-time approach to inventories. The combination is making trade sanctions more costly in terms of growth and jobs.

Even if no global round of trade negotiations takes place for another decade, the trend to global economic and cultural ties will continue. New technologies, cross border partnerships, and the growing ease of communications will help to increase the volume of international trade. Specific trade agreements on a regional or sector specific basis are likely -- and will only augment the trend.

* Interest groups, workers, environmentalists, and consumers in every country of the world share an interest in trade, growth, and innovation. Billions of people still aspire to move out of poverty and into a world of greater health, better education, and relative prosperity. To reach even a 1960s level of European prosperity, the combined populations of India and China alone would put enormous pressure on available resources and the environment unless technology changes. Growth is often associated with higher levels of pollution and greenhouse gases; but higher incomes are also associated with stable populations and a demand for greater environmental protection. Growth matters in the United States, too. It is growth and innovation that promise our children greater health, a cleaner environment, and greater prosperity.


* Recent experience has been tenacious in teaching us that markets depend on a set of complex institutions. The difficult transition from centrally planned economies to market-based democracies, the Asian financial crisis, and the economic stagnation in many countries -- all are reminders that markets are embedded in customs and cultures that evolve over time. Today's fast-moving American markets grew out of two centuries of development in the public as well as the private sphere. This long experience taught us the need for providing safety nets, setting up retirement programs, and developing standards to protect workers and consumers.


* America needs to develop a strategy for global engagement in what will surely be a thoroughly global century. It is an imperative that nurtures our ideals as well as favoring our interests. The American economy is closely linked to the rest of the world; we suffer from the costs of world-wide pollution; and we are only a plane ride away from any disease. By bringing world poverty into our living rooms, modern communications have created an added moral dimension in seeking development and equity around the world as well as at home.

America's global strategy will evolve in response to achieving hoped for successes as well as facing new challenges. As a start, I propose a five-step approach. We need to:


1. broaden the dialogue on international economic policy by considering everything from more inclusive congressional hearings to a reformed advisory approach for U.S. trade policy.
2. continue to press for domestic and global growth with equity. Trade is an important part of that agenda but so are global standards on everything from accounting to workplace safety.
3. forge global agreements to protect the global commons. We should be able to distinguish between standards that are designed largely to protect a domestic interest and those that are focused on shared environmental concerns
4. make a commitment to global health. Recent proposals for developing vaccines targeted at tropical diseases are an important start.
5. strengthen global and national institutions. Greater transparency in decision making can yield better results and build popular support. U.S. foreign assistance can be targeted at helping interested countries improve their ministries of labor and the environment. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has taken an important step in developing proposed codes of conduct that apply to multinational corporations based in OECD member countries.


At times, America has tried to lead by example and, at other times, by active engagement in the world. Today we need to pursue both. It is a case of doctor heal thyself but also help to heal others.


Andrea Durbin, Director, International Program, Friends of the Earth?.S.

Seattle: What it Meant and Where To Go From Here

The World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle have put international trade issues and the way trade policy is formulated under new public scrutiny. The old way of conducting global trade talks?here governments negotiated agreements in closed, exclusive settings?roved unacceptable to ordinary people and even to many governments, especially those from the developing world. The protests sent a fundamental message that global institutions such as the WTO should be democratic and accountable and that economic rules be balanced and promote social values, such as environmental, labor, and human rights protections.

Since Seattle, protests at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and the World Bank/International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings in Washington, DC have amplified that message. A new social movement of environmental, labor and human rights activists, students, and other groups is growing in the United States. This movement?hich joins the calls of developing country activists?ecognizes the inevitability of globalization, but contends that it be changed to elevate social values, not leave them behind. The movement calls for changes in the economic rules of the game?o put public interest ahead of corporate interest. Environmental organizations such as Friends of the Earth (FoE) are calling for specific trade reforms, which include:

1. Democratizing Trade: In Washington and Geneva

In Seattle, President Clinton acknowledged the need to democratize trade policy and to make the WTO more transparent and accountable. FoE believes democracy starts at home and asserts that the United States must reform the way it creates trade policy before it can reform the WTO. Today, the corporate sector provides input into the U.S. trade policymaking process, but the public is largely shut out. U.S. positions on trade the