Now that global tariffs and quotas are so low, trade disputes have shifted onto more sensitive, less clear-cut ground. Laws banning the importation of crocodile hide, for example, might be seen as unfair discrimination against countries that export crocodiles. Calls for better working conditions in the Third World are seen by developing nations as devices to raise their costs and make them less competitive.
How did the protesters become so numerous and so organized?
As Time magazine's Margot Hornblower pointed out last week, the demonstrators are a terrific example of the global forces they lament. Drawn from all over the world, Seattle protesters linked up to a large degree through the Internet, coordinating their campaigns, reaching out to new activists, gaining mass.
The WTO has been around for more than four years, and trade barriers have been declining for half a century. Why protest now?
Besides the newly touchy nature of trade issues, this is the WTO's most important meeting -- the first that is intended to launch a new round of negotiations. At the same time, the WTO has more enforcement teeth than GATT did. While any country could block an adverse GATT ruling, the WTO allows winning nations in trade disputes to impose punitive tariffs on the losers.
Does that mean the WTO has the power to overrule sovereign governments, as its critics claim?
No. The WTO has no enforcement muscle itself. Its punishments are levied by its members, one against another. Its member nations would have the power to take the same measures even if the WTO were abolished.
Nor does the WTO prohibit laws protecting the environment and social welfare. What it does prohibit is applying those laws one way to domestic businesses and another way to overseas businesses.
Seattle gives the impression that much of the world is against free trade. Is that true?
No. A broad, centrist bloc of world leaders supports free trade, as do most U.S. presidential candidates. Free trade, they correctly point out, is strongly associated with higher living standards, improved health, stable politics and international concord.