Prague, 29 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary focuses largely on this week's meeting of the 135-member World Trade Organization, which opens tomorrow (Nov. 30) in the northwestern U.S. city of Seattle. But there is little consensus among the commentators on the meeting's importance or likely success. Editorialists also comment on Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, and on last Saturday's (Nov. 25) landmark decision in Belfast by Northern Ireland's Ulster Unionist Party to join a regional government along with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
FINANCIAL TIMES: Ministers start out close to deadlock
Britain's "Financial Times" says that the four-day WTO ministerial meeting faces two big challenges. "One," the paper writes, "is to overcome deep divisions over the global trade agenda. The other," it adds, "is to respond effectively to public skepticism that liberalization -- and indeed the trade system [in general] -- are needed at all. Success," the paper argues, "requires that both challenges be met head on."
The FT notes that Seattle has attracted "tens of thousands of free trade's most vocal critics, representing a wide variety of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)." It goes on: "The protesters' beliefs differ and are often in contradiction. But they are united in saying a new [world] trade round should be halted or should proceed only on their terms."
The paper says, "the ministers [themselves] start out close to deadlock." It writes further: "Failure or a feeble political fudge would leave the global trade system dangerously adrift. Free trade's noisy opponents would be handed a tactical victory." The FT concludes: "The world would be poorer as a result."
LES ECHOS: The WTO meeting has served to crystallize all fears as well as hopes
In the French financial daily "Les Echos", a signed editorial by Francoise Crouigneau also comments on the NGOs' presence in Seattle. She writes: "[Their] unprecedented mobilization ... has created some surprise in Seattle, as it has in Europe. But it would be wrong to consider [their demonstrations] as a [media-oriented] giant circus. That's because [the NGOs' large presence] confirms that the WTO meeting has served to crystallize all the fears as well as the hopes created by globalization."
The editorial goes on to call for a WTO resolution of important trade policies among its member states -- particularly differences between the U.S. and the 15-nation European Union. The EU, Crouigneau says, "goes to Seattle strengthened by internal unity." But she asks whether the Union will remain united throughout the Seattle meeting: "The challenge," the editorial says, "is a major one for [the EU,] an economic power lacking strategic force .... [U.S. President] Bill Clinton ... knows how to deal with [the EU] 15 ... he has substantial political, economic, financial and other levers."
WASHINGTON POST: World trade doesn't need a new agreement
Far more skeptical about Seattle, economics columnist Robert Samuelson says flatly in the "Washington Post" today: "We don't need this trade pact." He writes: "If ever there was a pointless meeting, the [WTO] gathering ... seems to be it. The meeting's stated purpose is to start a new round of trade negotiations, which -- if launched -- might last between three years and eight years (the last one took seven-and-a-half years). But world trade doesn't need a new agreement, and the meeting could be a public relations disaster. Hordes of protesters are descending on Seattle, and the main result may be a mountain of misinformation about trade and its side effects."
Samuelson continues: "In this debate, the protesters do not occupy the moral high ground. Trade has been an enormous force for good. Since 1950, the world economy has expanded six-fold to about $30 trillion of output, and trade has grown 14 fold to about $5.5 trillion of exports. Countless countries, starting with Japan, have benefited through higher incomes, better diets and longer life expectancies."
He then asks: "If trade's so good, why wouldn't another global trade agreement make it better? After all, there's still much protectionism -- in farm products, for example. But," he adds, "a new trade agreement might not matter much." He explains: "Countries may cede some economic sovereignty to the WTO. They ... are less willing to cede political and social sovereignty. As a result," he concludes, "any new agreement might not contain many concessions."
NEW YORK TIMES: The goal can be met if trade ministers focus on the few proposals that can be resolved
The "New York Times" is expecting "turbulence in Seattle" -- the title of its editorial today. The paper writes that the aim of the WTO meeting is "not to solve the world's trade disputes, but merely to set an agenda for the next round of negotiations. Even that," it says, "will not be easy. Rich countries are squabbling with poor countries. Tens of thousands of street demonstrators are expected to denounce the organizations for trampling on the rights of [developing] countries, the sovereignty of individual countries and the environment."
"In such a turbulent setting," the editorial goes on, "a productive agenda will almost certainly elude the assembled ministers unless they focus tightly on a few achievable measures aimed at expanding trade. The most important of these," it argues, "will benefit the world's poorest countries. Third World farmers want access to closed agriculture markets in Europe and the US. The demand deserves to be met."
The paper sums up: "The goal of trade talks is to guarantee that countries which want to export can find countries willing to import. That goal can start to be met if the trade ministers drop proposals that cannot yet be resolved by consensus and focus on the few that can."
LOS ANGELES TIMES: Non-trade factors have to be taken taken into account
Los Angeles Times Syndicate columnist William Pfaff says that the "massive disagreements and international controversies that threaten to block [the Seattle meeting] have already established one important point: Trade cannot be treated as if it were a matter of economics alone."
Pfaff writes: "The prevailing assumption in the industrialized countries has been that trade issues should be dealt with in isolation from social and political context and consequences. This idea has [now] been dealt a blow from which it will not recover." He adds: "Before globalization, trade consisted largely of goods and commodities. Now, trade in such things ... pales beside the international finance market .... This is eminently political."
He concludes: "[The controversy leading up to Seattle meeting] has demonstrated that non-trade factors have to be taken into account in these negotiations. They are inseparable from economic issues. Paying attention to them is paying attention to reality. If you don't, reality will take its revenge."
LOS ANGLES TIMES: The demonstrators are trying to take back the power of the state
In the "Los Angeles Times" newspaper, publicist Robert Borsage concentrates on the NGOs in Seattle -- what he calls "people power." He writes: "On Seattle's streets, the demonstrators disagree about many things, but all agree on one thing: They oppose the conservative-inspired [globalization] project and the WTO's claim to enforce it. As an alternative, demonstrators offer a blizzard of often-incompatible ideas."
Borsage goes on: "One of their demands is to reform the WTO to protect worker rights and the environment, as well as property rights and investment. ... [But] many environmental and consumer activists, led by Ralph Nader, would rather disembowel the WTO than reform it. ... Collectively, the demonstrators are trying to take back the power of the state, at whatever level, from the corporate agenda."
The commentator compares the demonstrators' aims with the trust-busting and other regulatory reforms that created the large U.S. middle class over more than 50 years. "Once again," he says, "the opposition takes many forms. But once again, the call for reform, for enforcing values other than those of profit, will surely advance. In Seattle, the future is more likely to be forged from passions on the streets than from the powerful [ministerial] meetings."
WASHINGTON POST: Chechens have failed their own people most of all
The "Washington Post" yesterday wrote of "Russia's strategy" -- or, as the paper would have it, lack of strategy -- in Chechnya. Its editorial began: "The Russian armed forces bomb and shell Chechen villages until their inhabitants die or flee; then soldiers move in and loot the emptied houses. This is the conclusion of a new Human Rights Watch report based on numerous interviews with refugees and eyewitnesses."
The editorial notes that, "in many ways, Russia had more justification for its intervention in Chechnya than [Yugoslav President] Slobodan Milosevic had in Kosovo. The Chechens had given offense by condoning, or at least failing to control, incursions from their territory into neighboring provinces of Russia. ... They had failed their own people most of all, by not taking advantage of a brief peace to build any kind of normal life."
"But," the paper continues, "whatever sympathy Russia therefore might have enjoyed for its campaign it has squandered with methods that echo all too familiarly those of Mr. Milosevic. ... So far, the war is popular inside Russia; the press is given little access to the war zone and reports even less on the misery of the Chechens. ... But neither the government nor the military seems to have a long-term strategy, unless you count the depopulation of Chechnya."
"Now," the "Post" concludes, "Russian troops have encircled the capital of Grozny and warned all civilians to leave; what is left of the place apparently will be destroyed. And then what? No one seems to have thought that far ahead."
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: David Trimble is the real hero of the Northern Ireland peace talks
On the Northern Ireland peace process, the "Wall Street Journal Europe" today congratulates the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) for its approval Saturday of what the paper calls "a radical shift in party policy." In an editorial, the paper writes: "The largely Protestant UUP [has agreed] to form a government with Sinn Fein before this party's allied terrorist organization, the [Irish Republican Army, or] IRA, decommissions a single bullet of its illegal arms stockpiles."
For the paper, "it is UUP leader David Trimble who deserves most of the credit. ... [But] the UUP will not govern alongside Sinn Fein indefinitely in the absence of IRA decommissioning .... Mr. Trimble has already dramatically tendered his senior colleagues a pre-written letter of resignation which promises that, without tangible progress on the destruction of IRA weaponry, he will step down."
The "Wall Street Journal" urges that, "in return for the good faith shown by the UUP this weekend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair owes it to Mr. Trimble to back him up in February [when the UUP will assess IRA progress on dismantling its arsenal]. ... The ball, then, is in the IRA's court, [and it is clear] that David Trimble is the real hero of the Northern Ireland peace talks."