Accessibility links

Western Press Review: Assessing Seattle's Meeting -- And Riots

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 2 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As has been true throughout this week, much of Western press commentary today centers on the troubled ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle. The meeting's opening Tuesday (Nov. 30) was disrupted and delayed by violent rioters -- many of them U.S. youths. That led Seattle's mayor to impose a night-time curfew and the governor of the state of Washington to call out National Guard units to supplement the city's police. Commentators assess the significance of both the meeting and the riots.

TIMES: The protesters turn logic on its head

The "Times" of London says the rioting should not have come as a surprise to the meeting's participants. The paper writes in an editorial: "Representatives of more than 1,200 groups, with a rag-bag of diverse causes, had made plain beforehand their aim to signal displeasure with what they see as the tightening stranglehold of big business on long-established ways of life. The [tear-] gas has dissipated, but it remains unclear whether the worst civil violence since U.S. protests against the Vietnam War a generation ago has taught the world any worthwhile new lessons."

The editorial continues: "The case that the anti-WTO crowd, -- broadly, trade unions and greens -- meant to make was two-fold. Its first point was that the WTO's stated aim of promoting free trade makes it, in fact, no more than an immensely powerful battering ram to push the interests of transnational corporatism. ... Its second point was that the WTO, although born in an age of democratic participation, pursues its aims in an old-fashioned, secretive and unaccountable style."

The paper goes on to say that the WTO's real aim "is to provide just enough basic rules to promote more trade, letting more nations and cultures deal directly with each other and making old instincts of nationalist protectionism ever less attractive. Yet," it adds, "the protesters turn this logic on its head, arguing that the WTO is more powerful and malign than in reality, accusing it of ... being a cause, rather than an effect, of the situation that gave birth to it [five years ago]. This warped logic," the editorial says, "may uncomfortably remind observers that the WTO, made up largely of directly elected governments, is rather more accountable to its constituents than most of the one-issue NGOs [non-governmental organizations] protesting against it."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: This devilish image is false

The Danish daily "Berlingske Tidende" also questions the reasoning of the Seattle protesters. It writes in an editorial that "the only thing [the thousands of protesters] have in common is their perception of the WTO as the common enemy: a capitalist monster that rules over the world, robbing the poor and rewarding the rich."

"This devilish image is false," the paper argues. "The WTO is neither a kind of world government nor the lackey of big-money interests. The WTO is nothing more than an organization working to liberalize trade. It is instructive to note," it adds, "that China is now on the way to becoming a member of the WTO. Who would dare accuse China of being a lackey to capitalism?"

The paper also says: "Problems related to child labor and the environment [two of the protesters' chief concerns] are, of course, serious. Yet, there is little the WTO can do about them. They depend on national legislation, and the WTO has no authority to amend national laws. Instead, the WTO can ... recommend to its [135] member states some minimum standards." It concludes: "This was intended to be one of the main purposes of the meeting in Seattle -- and might even be achieved if those who demonstrate against it stop seeing the WTO as the creator of problems instead of the problem-solver [it was set up to be]."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Organized labor has mounted a misinformation campaign

The "Wall Street Journal Europe" is even more critical of the Seattle protesters. "Sadly," the paper says, "many of the youngsters trashing Seattle this week have been duped into believing that they are somehow protecting the rights of workers in Third World countries. Nothing," it adds, "could be further from the truth."

According to the WSJ, "the more serious struggle going on in Seattle this week is not between [the U.S.'s] misguided youth and the local [police]. Rather, it is between the leaders of the [U.S.] labor unions and the developing countries so many of the protesters believe they are helping. Organized labor," it continues, "has mounted a misinformation campaign that has persuaded many Americans that free trade destroys U.S. jobs. ... So, the twisted logic goes, it is somehow politically correct to ransack a multinational coffee chain [Starbucks] that exploits Third World coffee growers and exports U.S. jobs abroad."

The paper also lambastes President Bill Clinton for saying he "sympathizes" with the protesters. What he really means, the WSJ argues, "is his Democratic Party needs the support of organized labor to win [next year's] presidential election and is therefore willing to perpetuate the lie that free trade hurts the world's poor."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: It is ironic that the Left should rebel against globalization

The same paper carries a commentary by U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama. He writes: "If anyone wonders what has become of the hard [-core] Left now that the Berlin Wall has fallen ... the answer is simple: It has descended on Seattle to protest the WTO meeting this week. The 500-odd organizations on hand ... argue that the WTO has ignored worker rights and tried to strike down environmental, health and safety standards in the name of free trade. For the Left," he says, U.S. "imperialism has evolved into a new enemy, whose name is globalization."

Fukuyama finds it, in his words, "ironic that the Left should rebel against globalization, [which is actually] one of the most progressive forces in the world today. For every low-skill job exported from an industrialized country like the U.S. to the Third World," he argues, "several new ones are created in places like Malaysia, India and China -- giving workers in those countries the opportunity to join the modern world."

He adds: "Globalization in the form of direct foreign investment by multinational countries not only creates employment but directly threatens ... local elites [in the developing world] by exposing them to competition. Globalization," he adds, "is the bearer of modernization, bringing in its wake requirements for greater transparency and openness, education, best-practice management techniques and the scrutiny of the global media." He sums up: "Globalization is too serious a business to be the occasion for a radical nostalgia trip [such the one taken by the Seattle protesters]."

NEW YORK TIMES: The WTO must protect the environment

The "New York Times" similarly sees in "Tuesday's street scene in Seattle -- the chanting demonstrators, the looting, the National Guard ... a flashback to the 1960s." Its editorial says: "That the protests were aimed not at a divisive war [in Vietnam] but a peaceable meeting of the WTO made the whole thing even more surreal." But the paper nonetheless argues that WTO "members will make a huge mistake if they fail to grasp the core belief fueling these unruly protests -- that the WTO is far too insular, that it has displayed too little sensitivity for issues like workers' rights and the environment, and that its secretive procedures undermine public trust."

The NYT editorial continues: "On environmental issues ... mistrust [of the WTO] is particularly strong. Environmentalists fear that world trade agreements threaten domestic sovereignty to impose tough environmental restrictions on imports. ... The lesson from the demonstrators this week is that future trade panels [of experts who adjudicate disputes among members] must not just talk about protecting the environment but actually do so. ... The WTO is now on notice that future panels should bend over backwards to side with the environmental advocates when the cause is just."

"If future panels do not protect environmental values," the NYT sums up, "it may be necessary to set up separate tribunals to establish global ... standards. Another step might be to reform the WTO by strengthening its toothless environmental review group. In any case, all WTO deliberations should be open. One way or another, vital issues affecting the health and prosperity of the planet deserve a visibly fair hearing."

LE FIGARO: Globalization benefits only multinational corporations

The case against globalization is most strongly stated today by France's Nobel-laureate economist, Maurice Allais. Writing in the daily "Le Figaro", he says flatly: "It cannot be sufficiently emphasized: Globalization benefits only multinational corporations. From it, they derive enormous profits."

Allais goes on: "For the past 20 years, a new doctrine has gradually imposed itself on the world -- the doctrine of global free trade, which means the disappearance of all obstacles to the free movement of goods, service and capital throughout the world. This doctrine," he adds, "has been literally forced upon successive U.S. governments, then on the entire world, first by U.S. multinationals, then by multinationals in all parts of the world."

Allais adds: "These multinationals, with hundreds of subsidiaries, dispose of enormous financial means, and they are under no controls whatsoever. They have great political power, which they use -- through intermediaries -- everywhere. ... The partisans of this doctrine," he sums up, "are now as dogmatic about globalization as were partisans of communism before its collapse [in Europe] in 1989."

ELEFTHEROTYPIA: The top priority is to make a profit

Two Greek papers also carry anti-globalization comments. An editorial in the daily "Eleftherotypia" says: "[Microsoft chief executive] Bill Gates, the co-president of the WTO meeting's organizing committee -- and the richest man in the world today -- said recently: 'The success of the [meeting], in defining just and predictable conditions for world trade, will mark an improvement in the prospects of the U.S. and the global economies.'" That means, the paper argues, that "the top priority is to make a profit." It also means, the editorial adds, "that weaker economies have to bear the burden and that the poor are becoming poorer. ... Fortunately," it continues, "a global movement against globalization has begun to develop. ... Today in Seattle, the representatives of [hundreds of] organizations from 87 countries are vigorously protesting. We hope," the paper concludes, "that the Seattle meeting will be shipwrecked and ... that human values are placed above the profits of the few."

KATHIMERINI: Protesters are expressing despair

In the daily "Kathimerini," G.G. de Lastic writes in a commentary: "Today the protesters in Seattle are expressing despair at -- but also a will to resist -- globalization felt by millions of people from every corner of the world. These are people who are losing their jobs and being marginalized by the globalization of the world economy."

The commentary goes on: "'We are going to Seattle to help the poor,' wrote recently WTO Director-General Mike Moore, the former social-democratic prime minister of New Zealand. Could anything sound more hypocritical?" it asks.

De Lastic concludes: "At other times, public opinion would be completely indifferent to a WTO ministerial meeting. But now millions of people are following its proceedings, and hundreds of thousands are protesting, because they understand that this increasingly controversial organization threatens their chances of keeping their jobs."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen and Alexis Papasotiriou contributed to this report.)