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U.S.: How Seattle Earned The Right To Host WTO

Bellingham, Washington, 1 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Pacific coast city of Seattle probably scarcely comes to mind outside the United States when talk turns to the topic of world trade.

After all, Washington, D.C., is the nation's political capital, and New York remains the U.S. capital of commerce.

But when it comes to the fast-growing branch of U.S. commerce called "world trade," the focus shifts across the North American continent to Washington state and to that state's leading city, Seattle.

That, in short, is why the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton chose Seattle over all other U.S. cities in the lively bidding to host this week's third ministerial conference of the Geneva-based World Trade Organization, or WTO. But that short answer has a long history.

Seattle is situated on a long, mountain-sheltered finger of the Pacific Ocean known as Puget Sound. It has become the nation's leading hub of sea-going foreign trade, and handles more freight cargo than the Great Lakes port of Detroit, Michigan (Number 2 in the nation's volume of foreign trade), and the Port of New York (a close number 3).

Washington state registered $34 billion in foreign sales last year, according to the state's trade office. That's the most in the nation. So it is not surprising that, of the 50 states, Washington is the most dependent on world trade. State figures claim that every fourth job is related to trade.

This is largely because both Boeing and Microsoft -- the world's leading aviation and software companies -- have their headquarters in the Seattle area.

So it's probably not surprising, either, that Phil Condit and Bill Gates, chief executives of Boeing and Microsoft, are serving as co-hosts to the WTO's Seattle meeting. Gates puts Microsoft's foreign sales last year at $10 billion and Boeing's at $30 billion.

This is not Seattle's first opportunity for world attention. In 1993, it hosted the first gathering of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC, an association of Asian-Pacific trade partners. Since then, APEC has met in both Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, 225 kilometers to the north.

Washington state's rise in world trade grows from its original economic base reaching back more than a century: natural resources, including timber and fishing. And much trade from the western half of the continental United States also flows through the ports in the Seattle area.

Jay Ziegler, a spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which chose Seattle for the WTO meeting, describes the Seattle area as "one of the most diversified and dynamic areas in the country."

The recent growth was fueled by the ending of the Cold War. Washington state suddenly found new markets to develop. Seattle already had trade offices in Japan and Hong Kong, and it added an office in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.

Russia responded by opening a consulate in Seattle, its first new consulate in the United States in 20 years.

Washington state sold nearly $300 million worth of goods and services to customers in Russia until Russia's crippling financial crisis in August 1998. Trade then plunged, but Washington state trade officials continue to work with their new Russian partners.