The banner headline in the Saturday Seattle P-I said it all: “Summit ends in failure.” After a week of hopeful articles in the U.S. press about the course of the WTO talks, this ending seemed to come as a shock. But for people who were watching the real progress of the talks, this ministerial was a failure from the first day.
For one thing, the WTO delegates might have agreed on something if Clinton had just stayed in Washington, D.C. As it turned out, his speech irritated and infuriated most of the delegates from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and this helped to sabotage the talks. In a cynical move to win labor’s support for Al Gore’s candidacy, Clinton proposed a WTO working group on labor standards, which would be able to impose sanctions on nations that violate certain labor standards. Third World nations naturally viewed this in the context of the brutal sanctions against Iraq and the recent U.S.-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia: if the U.S. can use U.N. human rights standards to selectively punish nations that operate outside of the U.S. sphere of influence, then the U.S. would surely use WTO labor standards to do the same thing.
But while the main split in the negotiations was between industrialized nations and the lesser developed countries (LDCs), even the richer nations couldn’t agree on what issues to add to the agenda. Japan wanted to talk about dismantling the U.S.’s anti-dumping laws, but the U.S. vetoed that. Instead U.S. delegates proposed phasing out agricultural protections in Japan and Europe. This issue went nowhere, along with other pet projects of the U.S.: abolishing tariffs on forest products, extending a moratorium on taxes and customs duties for goods sold over the Internet, and forcing the European Union to accept the WTO’s decisions on genetically modified foods.
These issues were challenged by LDC delegates, who had a host of complaints about the structure of the meetings. There was a gross disparity between rich and poor nations at the WTO talks. Rich nations could afford to send as many as 85-90 delegates and had at least one person in every meeting. Poor nations, on the other hand, could only afford to send 4 or 5 people and, with 5 or more meetings running simultaneously, they often had no representation when important questions were being debated. This forced the poorer nations to unite and use their veto power. One angry delegate said: “This is a sham. We are just like the environmentalists. We are frozen out of the process.” Another delegate told a local TV reporter that the protests outside in the street were having an impact inside: it gave the LDC delegates hope that they could unite and make a stand on issues that were important to them–issues that were being ignored by the European Union and the U.S. At one point, an exasperated U.S. Trade Rep. Charlene Barshefsky, who was chairing the ministerial, threatened to kick the LDC delegates out of the conference and put the decision-making into the hands of a select group of delegates from 20 industrialized nations.
Make no mistake: the LDC delegates represent the pro-business elites in their own countries, but they were quick to complain that globalization has not benefited them (in spite of what the U.S. government and press uniformly assert). Not only are they afraid of U.S. and European economic domination (neo-colonialism), they’re also afraid of having no control over how major corporations operate within their national borders. No small, national government wants to be blamed by its own people for the depredations of foreign corporations (as is happening now in Nigeria and Indonesia, for example). The LDC delegates were also very candid in saying that anything they agreed to at the WTO talks could eventually come back to haunt them at home. Surely the view of thousands of protesters in the streets of Seattle in this, a very rich country, gave the delegates pause and made them think about the possibility of wide-scale protests back home.
These are not the only reasons why the talks failed. The actions by protesters on the streets had a broad impact in several other ways. First of all, because the opening ceremonies and many of the social events were canceled, the delegates were not able to rub elbows, get to know one another, and lobby each other on specific issues. Cocktails and social events are important tools used by the delegates from wealthy nations to size up “the crowd” (i.e., the LDC delegates), offer them special perks to win them over on key issues, and ostracize or apply pressure to the less amenable LDC delegates. Secondly, without the social events, corporate bigwigs were not able to meet and schmooze with the delegates. And finally, the delegates admitted that they had lost a full two days of work because of the delays caused by the protests, hotel blockades, and traffic tie-ups.
By Friday morning, a group of delegates from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean were in open revolt, refusing to agree to a new round of talks. During the morning’s meeting, African delegates openly booed Charlene Barshefsky. They borrowed the words of protesters outside on the street to sum up their frustrations over the lack of access to WTO meetings and a general lack of adequate representation. Without a consensus, the main goals for the ministerial were abandoned: no agreements were signed, no agenda was set for the meeting to be held in Geneva next year, no timeline for setting an agenda was finalized, and no date was set for any new talks. As a local KIRO TV reporter asked: “Was it all for nothing?”
The answer, of course, is “No.” The collapse of this WTO ministerial is an important moral victory for the people in the streets who want to abolish the WTO. At the same time, it has deepened a divide within the WTO itself, and has revealed that, even among its own members, the WTO only pays lip service to the notions of “inclusiveness” and “a level playing field.”