It’s being billed in advance as the “protest of the century.” A thousand non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and tens of thousands of people are expected to demonstrate their opposition to the World Trade Organization in Seattle, beginning on Nov. 29.
How did something as arid and seemingly removed from people’s lives as “the Third Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization” manage to attract this kind of opposition?
THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME
Most of America slept right through the birth of this 134-nation organization five years ago – including many in Congress who voted to ratify U.S. membership. In the fall of 1994 Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen offered $10,000 to any member of Congress who would read the 500-page treaty and answer ten simple questions to prove it. Senator Hank Brown of Colorado, a Republican who had voted for NAFTA and planned to vote for the WTO, took the bet. He passed the quiz with a perfect score, collected the winnings (for a charity of his choice) and then proceeded to announce that, having read the agreement, he felt compelled to vote against it.
It passed anyway – but if it were up for a vote today, it would probably lose. Why the fuss? To be sure, the WTO wields considerably less power in the international economy than other, similar institutions in which our government plays the leading role. The International Monetary Fund and its sister institution, the World Bank, for example, probably do more damage to humanity and our natural environment in a typical month than the WTO has done since it set up shop.
But the WTO is meeting in the wrong place at the wrong time. The U.S. public has grown increasingly tired and suspicious of the whole process of “corporate globalization,” in which the ability of multinational corporations to profit from expanding trade and commerce is assumed to be identical with the public interest.
THE PROTECTIONIST WTO
It is important to realize that the argument here is not “free trade vs. protectionism,” as it is often framed by proponents of corporate globalization looking for a straw man to beat up on. The WTO is quite protectionist, and no friend of free markets, when it comes to “intellectual property rights” – patents, copyrights and other monopolies created for the benefit of major corporations.
Of course it is true that the monopoly profits received, for example, by pharmaceutical companies with patented drugs, are sometimes used to finance further research and development. But this is not necessarily the most efficient or effective means of financing the necessary research, and laws which balance competing interests on this issue vary greatly from country to country. Yet the WTO has adopted as its mission to protect and expand these monopolies for multinational corporations.
So the real debate is not about protectionism, but rather about who will be protected from the ravages of unrestrained competition. For the WTO, it is certainly not employees or the poor. The organization has no rules for the benefit of those who labor. Without any such standards, as the public has become increasingly aware, the majority of people can actually lose from expanding trade. The rapid expansion of our trade with Mexico over the last two decades, for example, has left workers on both sides of the border with a lower real wage than they had in the 1970s.
Nor does the environment or public safety merit protection from the WTO. In every case brought to the organization that challenged environmental or public safety legislation, the challengers won. When foreign commercial shrimp fishing interests challenged the protection of giant sea turtles in our Endangered Species Act, the poor turtles – who have glided through the Earth’s oceans for 150 million years – didn’t stand a chance.
When it was Venezuelan oil interests versus the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards for imported gasoline, the oil interests won. When it was U.S. cattle producers against the European Union’s ban on hormone-treated beef, European consumers lost.
The list goes on – and it would get a lot longer if the Clinton administration were to have its way in Seattle. One of the top items on their agenda is the much-dreaded “Global Free Logging Agreement,” which would lead to increased unsustainable logging worldwide and threaten a number of initiatives to protect domestic forests at home.
LAST STOP: SEATTLE
These results are hardly surprising, given the way the deck has been stacked. Decisions are made by tribunals in which the proceedings are kept secret. The judges tend to represent a narrow range of opinion on the economic and social issues, and there are no conflict of interest rules that would prevent them from ruling on a case in which they have a direct financial stake in the outcome.
This is the purpose of the WTO: to avoid the democratic processes and accountability (however scarce) that exist in the member nations, so that the rules that govern international trade and commerce can be made by those who run it.
In the latest issue of Business Week, Jeffrey Garten, Dean of the Yale School of Management, warns that if the NGOs are “are allowed to hijack the WTO talks, it will be a dangerous precedent that every government and every global company will regret long after the protests in Seattle.” But this is just the kind of precedent that the world needs right now. The opposition is demanding that there be no new round of negotiations, and it’s looking more and more like they are going to win. The Clinton administration’s offer to establish a “working group” within the WTO to discuss labor rights is too little and too late. This World Trade Organization is never going to make any rules that would infringe on the prerogatives of corporations, for the benefit of labor or the environment; it will self-destruct before that happens.
The train of corporate globalization – with “trade first, people last” as its guiding principle – has been headed in the wrong direction for a long time. Before it can turn around, it must be brought to a halt. Last stop: Seattle 1999.
Mark Weisbrot is Research Director of the Preamble Center, an independent research and public education organization based in Washington, D.C., to promote vigorous public dialog about the economic problems facing America’s working families and encourage the development of serious, workable solutions. They can be contacted at (202) 265-3263 or on-line at www.preamble.org.
This article appeared on an exceptionally useful web page maintained by Z Magazine, an independent political magazine of critical thinking on political, cultural, social and economic life in the United States. Located at www.zmag.org, the web page contains commentaries on hundreds of topics, links to other useful articles and web sites, interactive sections on books, music, and instructional programs, and sections in Spanish, French and Swedish.