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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

World Leaders Snub Clinton Over WTO

WASHINGTON -- President Bill Clinton has quietly tried - and failed - to persuade leaders of major countries to attend next week's huge trade summit conference in Seattle in order to break political deadlocks over workers' rights, agricultural subsidies and the United States' self-proclaimed authority to block low-cost imports.

Clinton's concerns were underscored Tuesday when negotiators for the 135 nations that will attend the conference abandoned their efforts in Geneva to work out an agenda. Their failure calls into question whether Clinton can achieve many of his negotiating priorities.

At about the same time Tuesday afternoon, the White House gave up on its last-minute attempt to persuade the leaders of Japan, Brazil, the European Union and several developing countries to attend the conference of the World Trade Organization, after several leaders said they had scheduling conflicts.

The purpose of the conference is to lay the groundwork for a global "millennium round" of trade negotiations, which could last for at least three years. The inability of the negotiators to reach an agreement on the agenda after weeks of trying reflects fundamental disagreements on some of the most politically sensitive economic issues around the globe.

Clinton, for example, wants Europe to abandon its huge subsidies for farmers, which he says are protectionist measures designed to cripple more efficient U.S. producers. The Europeans and the Japanese have refused, and have said that any trade accord must include the question of protecting rural communities - a code-word for protecting the livelihoods of the farmers who live in those nations.

Meanwhile, Clinton has riled developing nations like India and Brazil by insisting that the next round of trade talks take up, for the first time, the question of protections for workers - allowing the WTO, for example, to ban the export of goods made by child labor.

Officials from developing nations say that is merely an effort by the United States and Europe to erect barriers against low-cost goods - and to satisfy their trade unions. It is also an issue for Vice President Al Gore, who has come under intense pressure from unions - whose support he will need if he wins the Democratic presidential nomination - to kill any trade negotiations that do not make workers' concerns the top priority.

But the new head of the WTO, Mike Moore, a blunt-speaking former politician from New Zealand, warned recently that the talks were "in danger of failure." On Tuesday, speaking in Geneva, he said trade ministers had gone as far as they could and that "it's now up to our political bosses to make this a success."

Several times over the past few weeks Clinton and his staff have attempted to get some of those political bosses - whether presidents or prime ministers - to Seattle, hoping that the pressure of gathering them in one place would force several nations to compromise. They feared that trade and foreign ministers alone could not break the impasse.

In the end, to avoid the embarrassment of being explicitly turned down, Clinton's top aides informally contacted Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi of Japan; Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission; Thabo Mbeki, the new president of South Africa; President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil; Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, and a small number of others.

Several officials said that the one leader most interested in attending was the one Clinton would not talk to: Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"We started too late and it just didn't work," one White House official said Tuesday, insisting that no formal invitations were ever extended and that Clinton had never placed calls directly to the leaders.

Negotiating "trade rounds" is always contentious business: The last big negotiation, which created the World Trade Organization from a weaker predecessor, took years longer than originally scheduled and left many issues completely unaddressed. And new negotiations promise to be even more complex.

New members of the WTO - soon to include China - argue that special rules should be cut for countries most afflicted by poverty and long isolation from the world economy. And longtime members, like France, are convinced that the United States is using its economic rise and unchallenged global power to draft rules that play to the strengths of U.S. industry.