New World Disorder

Beyond the Barricades, WTO Collapsed Under Its Own Weight

New World Disorder

The World Trade Organization slunk away from the riot-torn city of Seattle last month after delegates from 135 nations abandoned their efforts to launch a new round of trade negotiations. Demonstrators danced in the soggy streets, celebrating after a week of mostly peaceful protests hobbled the ministerial meeting. But the Battle of Seattle that drew 40,000 activists to the streets paled in comparison to the quiet riot behind the barricades. Working from plush hotel suites nestled high above the clouds of tear gas, WTO Director General Mike Moore and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky were less troubled by the sea of protesters handing out "practice safe trade" condoms than by the trickle of outraged delegates who, angered over how the U.S. and European Union were monopolizing the agenda, were threatening to pack their bags.

"This is absolutely the worst -- the worst -- organized international conference there has ever been," said Sir Shridath Ramphal, a silver-haired veteran of more than 30 years of trade negotiations and head of a joint delegation of Caribbean nations. "Mrs. Barshefsky is intent on forcing the process and having a declaration at all costs, almost as if it doesn't matter what the rest of the countries think about it. Well, that is not going to happen. The WTO does not belong to the United States."

How WTO Failed

The WTO was set up in 1995 to monitor trade agreements and to resolve disputes. The Geneva-based group operates by consensus, which means that every member nation must agree to proceed with a new "round" of negotiations. In practice, WTO leaders summon small groups of delegates to a "green room" -- so named because the walls of the first room used for this purpose were green -- where the agreement is hammered out. Once a few key delegates agree on a text, the rest of the ministers are pressured to go along with it in exchange for concessions on other issues.

The fundamentally undemocratic nature of this negotiating process was among the complaints protesters brought to Seattle. It also proved to be the undoing of the ministerial meeting. Among the fatal flaws:

  • The green room process provided no opportunity for interested parties to monitor negotiations. Neither the proposals, nor the debate, nor even the voting records were visible to the public, as they are in nearly every democracy in the world. This led to comical results in Seattle, where news reporters and representatives from non-governmental organizations turned to peering through peepholes and sifting through trash cans as they struggled to discern what was going on behind the scenes. WTO leaders stationed additional security personnel throughout the convention center in order to combat such amateur espionage. By the end of the week, the inside of the hall felt as much like a police state as did the streets.

  • Most less-developed nations were also shut out of the process. Delegates from economically powerless countries in Africa, the Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean spent most of the week wandering the halls, asking journalists and non-governmental representatives what was happening. The delegates -- nearly all of whom are high-ranking officials in their home governments -- were humiliated, and grew furious as the week progressed. Making matters worse, the riots prevented them from sampling Seattle's nightlife and kept them cooped up in their hotels. "There's too much behind-the-scene cooking," complained Namibian delegate Nokokure Murangi. "It's as if we do not exist."

    And when many were finally presented with a draft agreement, they were simultaneously subjected to intense pressure to sign. None would discuss the specifics on the record, for fear of further reprisals. But Jamie Love, who has been tracking trade deals for several years as head of the Consumer Project on Technology, said the arm-twisting is frequently unrelated to trade. "It is this really ugly form of colonialism where everything happens behind the scenes." Love said that when Egypt was contemplating a pharmaceuticals policy that would hurt U.S. drug makers, for example, "They were told in plain terms that they would lose $500 million in U.S. aid if they challenged the U.S." Brent Blackwelder, head of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, agreed: "Delegates from the south are caving in to United States pressure -- The violence you see outside cannot compare to the violence being done inside."

    By late Friday night, it became clear to WTO leadership that there was no way to reach consensus. "We could have stayed all night, maybe for five more days, it wouldn't have mattered," said a weary Barshefsky, who as host of the failed conference will likely face intense criticism in the months to come. "The WTO has outgrown the processes appropriate to an earlier time," she added, "--we needed a process which had a greater degree of internal transparency and inclusion to accommodate a larger and more diverse membership."

    What Next?

    While the forces aligned against corporate-led globalization won the Battle of Seattle, the War over World Trade is far from over. The WTO plans to resume discussions early next year in Geneva. Moore and most of the humiliated trade negotiators believe that the WTO can be fixed -- possibly through the creation of a parliamentary-style system -- and resume pursuing its free-trade agenda.

    But the labor, consumer, environment, human rights, and student groups who marched in Seattle are opposed to the core beliefs of the WTO, which they claim promotes not "free" trade but "corporate-managed" trade policies that threaten health, labor, the environment, and basic human rights. Said noted consumer advocate Ralph Nader: "There's never been an event in American history that has brought together more disparate groups."

    Both sides vow to fight again. The only thing certain is that it won't be in as comfortable a city as Seattle. When asked where he would schedule the next ministerial meeting, a former top U.S. trade negotiator suggested: "Someplace like Iceland, in January." end story

    Monte Paulsen is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C. He is a contributor to The Buying of the President 2000, to be released next month by Avon Books.
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