Accessibility links

World: WTO Caught In Crush Of Competing Agendas

  • Ben Partridge

The violent demonstrations in the U.S. city of Seattle this week were a protest against the World Trade Organization's attempt to reach agreement on a new three-year round of trade liberalization negotiations. Why has the issue aroused such strong feelings? RFE/RL London correspondent Ben Partridge looks at the host of social and environmental issues that are being framed as clashes between protectionism and free trade.

London, 6 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said before the 135-nation meeting that it was a historic chance to launch a new trade round for a new century.

Few anticipated that such a dull-sounding agenda would bring tens of thousands of protesters, including labor activists and environmental groups, onto the streets in angry protests.

The turmoil on the streets heightened doubts on whether it would be possible to reach agreement on the new round of global trade talks in time for the deadline set for today (Friday).

Why so much noise and resistance? The WTO session became a rallying point for a variety of protests -- against globalization, environmental damage, labor rights abuses, the domination of multinational corporations, and the treatment of developing nations.

One commentator said that the battles on the streets took the spotlight away from the fierce political struggles being fought by the WTO delegates meeting in five closed-door working sessions.

The WTO meeting aims to build on the previous Uruguay trade round, completed in 1993, by reaching agreement on a new session of "Millennium Round" trade talks.

Proponents of free trade say that more than 50 years of global trade agreements have confirmed that increased trade between nations promotes prosperity, which promotes peace. A leading British economist, Professor Michael Wickens of York University, gives RFE/RL the argument for why trade is good for all:

"The principle is that trade is good for everyone. What trade does is it enables consumers to buy things more cheaply and then it uses the resources of a country more efficiently. The idea behind most of the theories of trade is that everybody is better off, both the exporting country and the importing country. People who are against free trade are usually against it for protectionist reasons."

But few governments are arguing for completely free trade. Indeed, there are huge differences between WTO member nations, as well as business groups, labor organizations, and environmental lobbies, about how -- and if -- the WTO can achieve the goal of even freer trade on terms acceptable to them.

Some developed countries say that all industries should abide by a set of environmental controls. They want to be able to tax or even ban products that are produced in ways that harm the environment. Less developed countries say they cannot afford to use such costly production methods while their industries are developing. And they say that the developed countries are using the environment as an excuse to keep out their products.

Environmentalists fear the WTO will agree, and will rule that countries do not have a right to keep out products that are produced by methods that are environmentally harmful.

Similarly, a dispute over genetically modified foods can be framed as a choice between protectionism and free trade. U.S. farmers use gene manipulation to create pest-resistant crops. Many European countries do not want to import such products, saying they may have unanticipated consequences for the environment and public health. The United States says keeping out these crops and products is against fair trade practices. Here, too, food safety advocates are afraid the WTO will rule that countries cannot keep the products out.

Another dispute between the U.S. and the EU is over the subsidies paid to European farmers. And developing countries, too, are angered by EU farming policy. Wickens of York University:

"Quite a lot of the problems [developing countries] have at present is that they can't find open markets for their agricultural produce. For example, the EU has a lot of bilateral deals where, for political reasons, they keep out the imports of other countries and only take imports from particular countries."

So the delegates in Seattle have a host of different agendas. Farm export groups from Central and Eastern Europe, South America and Australasia say they are being harmed by the EU's agricultural protection; the U.S. wants tougher trade rules to protect labor standards; and Pakistan and Malaysia -- among others -- oppose new labor standards.

And the non-governmental organizations have different agendas as well. Green groups say that liberalization of world trade is harming the environment; consumer groups oppose the development of genetically-modified seeds; others say the benefits of free trade are skewed in favor of rich countries.

The same division in agendas is apparent among the demonstrators on Seattle's streets. They have ranged from older union members in peaceful marches arguing for global labor standards to some of the younger protesters who have smashed shop windows and shouted slogans such as "anarchy" and "property is theft."

Western press commentators seeking to understand the protests cite a more general concern about where the world is heading. William Pfaff, in "The Los Angeles Times," says many people strongly oppose the trend toward globalization -- and the dogmatic pursuit of deregulated international markets -- seeing it as a threat.

He says the Seattle protests -- dubbed "the new Woodstock" -- are a reaction against what is widely seen as a program to transfer power over society from governments -- and the enterprises and institutions of individual nations -- to international corporations.

Philip Stephens, in the London "Financial Times," says the protesters in Seattle were confused, calling on the one hand for nations to be sovereign guardians of their own fate and on the other for sovereignty to be constrained for the global good.

This draws Stephens to conclude that the protests that disrupted this week's Seattle meeting reflect a growing unease among many people about the retreat of the nation state before the forces of globalization. He argues many people feel threatened by the emergence -- symbolized by the WTO talks -- of a global society in which individual nations are robbed of their autonomy, and national freedoms are increasingly constrained by multilateral rules.