From free trade to a free-for-all


Controversy: WTO conference in Seattle has touched a raw nerve that runs around the globe.

December 02, 1999

Militant demonstrators have taken to the streets of Seattle this week as the World Trade Organization meets there to discuss cutting global trade barriers.

By some estimates, more than 50,000 marching, jeering protesters have engulfed the maritime city, confining WTO delegates to their hotels and prompting cancellation of opening ceremonies. In response, police deployed rubber bullets and tear gas; the governor called in the National Guard, and the mayor declared a curfew.

Who are these protesters and what do they have against the WTO? Jay Hancock, The Sun's diplomatic correspondent, provides some background.

What's the WTO?

It's a group of 135 nations, based in Geneva, that works to lower global trade barriers and promote international commerce. Created in 1995, the WTO replaced the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, which was started after World War II.

The GATT founders realized that high trade barriers had contributed to the 1930s Great Depression by hindering economic growth, and had helped cause World War II by dividing nations. Their fervent desire to avoid a repeat of either event laid the foundation for half a century of steadily freer trade. The Cold War helped promote trade, too, as economic relations among U.S. allies were seen as helping to contain the Soviet Union.

The WTO is supposed to continue the progress.

What's the WTO doing in Seattle?

Members want to launch new negotiations shrinking the regulatory walls and speed bumps that impede international business. Import tariffs and quotas are drastically lower than they were a few decades ago, but many obstacles remain.

The point of the Seattle meeting is to choose categories for new negotiations -- not to do the negotiations themselves. Those will take at least three years. The last batch of GATT negotiations -- the Uruguay Round -- took almost eight years.

That doesn't sound controversial. Why are 50,000 people marching and protesting talks about -international insurance regulations?

To a large degree, they aren't.

The Seattle demonstrators may be angrier at what they think the WTO represents than at the WTO itself. The Seattle outburst is aimed at economic globalization -- the freer transfer throughout the world of goods and services, jobs and capital -- and what many people argue are globalization's damaging side effects.

As the forum for setting trade rules, the WTO is a handy symbol for globalization. Perhaps it's the only symbol of a force that, for all its size, is dispersed among millions of economic agents in hundreds of markets.

Why are the demonstrators indignant?

It's impossible to generalize, because the protesters swarming to Seattle range from conservative presidential candidate Pat Buchanan to mainstream environmental, and religious groups to leftist radicals.

A march by the Teamsters union and other labor groups helped freeze Seattle in gridlock. Environmentalists dressed as butterflies and sea turtles shared the streets with anarchists. Human-rights advocates decried sweatshop labor conditions in developing countries. The Friends of the Earth spoke up for ancient trees marked for export.

But binding them all is a general sense that multinational corporations are out of control; that hands-off, laissez-faire economic policies have left some people behind; that rising world trade means faster depletion of forests and other resources; that jobs in the United States and other developed nations have been shipped to the Third World; that bio-engineered food and other advanced technologies pose grave threats to health and environment; and that nations and citizens are less in control of their destinies than they used to be.

But protesters also have specific complaints against the WTO and its members. What are they?

One is about agriculture. While the Clinton administration wants to help American farmers by negotiating reductions in world agricultural tariffs, environmentalists fear that lower timber taxes will accelerate forest depletion in the United States, in tropical rain forests and elsewhere.

Another is about foreign steel, computer chips and textiles. U.S. anti-dumping laws help keep cheap imports of these products from swiping market share from American factories. Foreign producers claim these laws are anticompetitive and hope to attack them through the WTO.

European activists are unhappy that the WTO has supported U.S. efforts to export hormone-treated beef. Environmentalists fear that the WTO will erode laws protecting endangered species or limiting pollution. Human-rights activists believe the WTO doesn't do enough to foster humane labor laws and working conditions in overseas factories.

Endangered species laws? Labor protections? Since when have they become trade issues?

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