Plotting a century of fair trade


Consensus: The World Trade Organization's leader hopes nations have learned from the past 100 years.

November 27, 1999|By Paul L. Montgomery | Paul L. Montgomery,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GENEVA -- The lights at the World Trade Organization headquarters near Lake Geneva are on late these nights. The 135-nation organization, responsible for seeing that the export-import trade in each of its members is conducted fairly and freely, is preparing for a gathering in Seattle on Tuesday that could outline the foreign-trade rules of the next century.

The meeting, bringing together trade ministers of its members, is expected to take up questions as varied as health hazards of genetically engineered food and French quotas on American movies and television programs. Increasingly, the profitability of a product outside its country of origin is a crucial element in its production. With trillions of dollars at stake in world trade and many interests involved, the discussions in Seattle are expected to be heated and complex.

The man at the center of the WTO is its director-general, Mike Moore. He is responsible for finding, among all the opposing interests, a consensus that will carry trade forward, bringing markets to developed countries and developing countries alike.

The director-general's skills should be those of negotiator rather than policy-maker -- twisting arms or parrying threats as the need arises. Moore, a New Zealander who took office Sept. 1, has the political experience for the task. His straight-talking but nonconfrontational style is making a mark in Geneva.

Moore, 50, had jobs in meat packing, construction and social work before becoming, in 1972, the youngest person ever elected to the New Zealand Parliament. He had many ministerial posts when his Labor Party was in power: overseas trade and marketing, finance, foreign affairs and, briefly in 1990, prime minister.

His selection as director-general was contentious. He won the early support of the United States and most Western countries. But developing countries had doubts, and a standoff resulted. In a compromise, Moore was chosen for a three-year term, instead of the usual four, with the understanding that the next three years would go to Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand.

This has led to fears of stalling by the Third World until "demi-Moore's" successor takes over. The normal period for a round of world trade talks is three years, but some Asian trade ministers are predicting that this round, called the Seattle Round or the Millennium Round, will take longer.

Moore answered questions from his smallish office overlooking Lake Geneva.

The idea of the Seattle conference is to prepare a world trade agenda for the 21st century. What do you think the main problems and issues are?

What we want is to come out of Seattle with an organization that is looking at the issues of the next century. Essentially, is the next century going to be managed by force, by coercion or by persuasion, by cooperation? In the next century, have we learned anything from the last hundred years?

I think we've learned that we can't have clean air in one country without clean air in the other; we've got to cooperate whether it's an airline or a tax system or fisheries. We have to manage our resources in a sustainable way and manage our differences in a civil, legal way.

And so, I think, we want to come out in Seattle with a stronger, more relevant organization. And we've got to have a look at what the shape of the economy of the next century will be. That is why the Americans are pushing so hard on electronic commerce, and that is why issues of good governance, in regards to developing countries, are fundamental.

There are a lot of modest things we can do -- not very sexy. They might sound like jargon unless you think of the implications behind them. An agreement on transparency in government procurement is good for the taxpayer, it's good for the consumer, and it provides a base for good governance.

What's very good about this organization, as opposed to others, is that it's member-driven, which means sovereign governments, which means everything that we do has to be ratified by the government or the parliament, that any country can leave in six months -- it's done by consensus.

Therefore, nothing can go through unless the U.S. agrees. But, interestingly, nothing can go through unless all the countries agree.

Some countries, particularly France, have promoted a limitation on imported cultural products, such as Hollywood movies, in the interest of maintaining cultural diversity. The French call it the "cultural exception" to free-trade rules. Do you expect this issue to emerge in Seattle?

I think here technology and history are our great friends. I come from a country where we're trying to get a renaissance of our indigenous language, and many countries want to promote their own cultures, so there is a cultural unease here. But with technologies of a hundred TV channels, that kind of thing, I think we can get around that. We can have a dedicated system promoting indigenous language.

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