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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death of a Private Club

On the tear gas-shrouded streets of Seattle, the unruly forces of democracy collided with the elite world of trade policy. And when the meeting ended in failure late last Friday, the elitists had lost and the debate was changed forever.

Humdrum trade issues were reborn as supercharged social concerns. Political alliances were made across the sea. And chastened government officials vowed that from here on out, their insular trade establishment will be more open to the public.

"You can say the old phrase, 'Things will never be the same,'" U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley said in an interview. "I don't think they will."

The official goal of the Seattle summit was to begin trade talks that would steer the global economy forward in the 21st century. The WTO, the international organization charged with writing the rules of global commerce, was to be the vehicle for change.

Clinton administration officials had staked prestige on the get-together, which they viewed as a chance to shape the course of a global trading system that numbers 135 nations and is growing steadily.


But that goal fell victim to political whirlwinds that savaged the summit from within and without, bringing fierce pressure for reforms of the WTO and the clubby manner in which nations have made deals about trade.

Internally, Third World nations rebelled against what they saw as their exclusion from key talks dominated by the United States and Europe.

Externally, tens of thousands of protesters shouted their demands that trade officials consider the effects of their decisions on the environment, working people, public safety and health.

Delegates Friday reported some progress toward an agriculture agreement, with the European Union signaling some willingness to consider an end to agriculture export subsidies at some future time. But they were widely divided on a host of issues.

U.S. anti-dumping restrictions that protect domestic industries from surges of exceptionally cheap imports were also under attack in Seattle.

In addition, many countries from the emerging world expressed outrage at WTO procedures, which they considered secret and exclusionary. Indeed, news that the much-anticipated summit was sinking in quicksand thrilled the army of WTO critics that had converged on Seattle. All week, an array of environmental, labor and human rights groups have hammered the message that the WTO shortchanges social needs in its bid to promote trade.

"My view is we need a new set of rules for a global economy," said David Downes, senior attorney at the Center for Environmental Law in Washington, adding that the WTO's problems are "a signal that we have to start over and do it right."

Last Tuesday, the day formal WTO deliberations began, Seattle exploded in protest, with demonstrators blocking delegates from the convention center and causing the opening to be delayed for hours.

While the summit eventually got under way, it did so in an atmosphere that was reminiscent of a city under siege, replete with police at checkpoints, helicopters overhead and countless confrontations between demonstrators and authorities.


The impasse became clear Friday evening when an angry group of eight Latin American trade ambassadors informed WTO Director General Mike Moore that they had been excluded from key deliberations and would not support a deal.

Moore quickly convened a smaller meeting with the United States and a few other countries, and 45 minutes later those officials said that they had given up on reaching a broad compromise, officials said.

The dramatic summit reached an embarrassing end for WTO leaders late Friday, when U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky conceded that a broad accord was out of reach.

At 11 p.m., Barshefsky had called the last of the week's sessions to order and announced that the WTO would enter a process of self-examination to find better ways to include all its 135 member nations in decision-making and tackle the "important and profound" issues that it faces.

"While very substantial progress was made in many areas, issues that remained were highly complicated and we believed could not be overcome rapidly," she explained.

She suggested the squabbling delegates take a "time out," while WTO Director General Moore visits with various delegations to iron out concerns. That process, she maintained, "will allow the ministerial to resume and com plete its work."

But such a resumption was not expected for months.

Clinton administration officials had viewed the Seattle summit as an opportunity to place the White House imprint on a major new initiative for the global economy.

President Bill Clinton, who visited Seattle in a bid to push the talks forward, had also sought higher labor standards and environmental protections as part of trade deals. Such objectives are extremely popular in the United States and Western Europe but have sparked vehement opposition in many other regions, which oppose such mandates from their wealthier counterparts.

Earlier, there had been signs of progress in some areas, but the deep divisions among rich and poor nations and among competitors in sectors like agriculture proved far tougher to bridge than observers expected.

After a sleepless night of back-to-back negotiations, Barshefsky raised the pressure early in the day by vowing to push her own version of an agreement unless delegates could cobble one together themselves.

The WTO's own rule of consensus - in which a disparate crowd of 135 member nations must agree on the trade proposal - added further uncertainty to whether a final compromise would be reached.

Early in the day, Clinton, hoping to head off a deal-threatening impasse over controversial U.S. anti-dumping measures, phoned Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi from the White House to try to convince him to remove the highly sensitive issue from the WTO agenda.

"They talked about how to launch the new round," said a senior White House aide, who described the conversation as "useful and timely."

Throughout the deliberations, there was a strong current of resentment from poor and emerging nations that believe they have not benefited from previous trade accords and have viewed the club of trading nations as dominated by the United States and Europe.

Their feelings intensified after Clinton visited the summit and urged the delegates to listen to the protesters' genuine concerns about labor and the environment. He also told a Seattle newspaper that trade agreements should contain penalties for governments that don't protect their workers.


A senior Japanese official said the week in Seattle provided a sobering lesson for WTO delegates about the complex changes underway in the world, including the frustrations of the developing world and widespread anxieties about globalization.

But the official, who asked not to be identified, insisted that if the WTO learned from its woes, "this is an inevitable step toward an eventual success."

Outside the WTO conference, activity in downtown Seattle took on a more festive holiday air following a cleanup by city officials. Though the city still reeled from the massive anti-WTO protests that shattered windows and its image, shoppers began to return to downtown stores.

While the no-protest zone being maintained around the convention center kept the small crowds of peaceful protesters at a distance Friday, a handful of environmentalists sneaked into the media center midday and launched a guerrilla protest against the WTO before being hauled off by police.

The WTO pledged to explore new ways to include all its members in key deliberations, a reform that was loudly demanded by delegates from Africa, Asia and Latin America. While leading nations rejected the demand of protesters to eliminate the WTO altogether, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky conceded it "has outgrown the processes appropriate to an earlier time."

For its part, the sprawling army of critics and interest groups claimed nothing less than the arrival of a historic moment in global democracy.

It was "a stunning breakthrough in the public debate over globalization," maintained John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the peak U.S. body for organized labor. "Americans crossed a threshold to begin a truly national conversation ... and they were joined by citizens across the globe."

Anti-WTO alliances were legion, in some cases uniting outside detractors with delegations inside the embattled institution. Champions of the poor, for example, found allies in the delegations from have-not countries, supplying them with information and even serving as mouthpieces for their concerns.

"In the end, powerful countries were unable to railroad weaker ones into agreeing to something that they had never been part of in the first place," said Tetteh Hormeku of the African Trade Network, a non-governmental group that spoke on behalf of delegates from sub-Saharan Africa.

It is a movement that barely existed a decade ago.


In the immediate aftermath of the breakdown, some observers expressed concern that the WTO and international organizations that had guided the global economy since World War II were losing public support and seemed increasingly out of date.

"Let's not forget that the WTO, and its predecessor, the GATT, are an attempt to protect the world from the rule of law of the jungle which in the 1930s contributed to economic collapse and world war," Robert Kapp, president of the U.S. China Business Council, said.

When trade officials gathered in 1986 in Punta del Este, Uruguay to embark on the last major round of negotiations, only a handful of interest groups bothered to show up. But in Seattle there was a stampede: More than 2,000 "non-governmental organizations" - mostly anti-WTO interests with strong social agendas and international ties - registered for the summit, according to trade officials.

A decade ago, Americans mostly yawned when U.S. and Canadian officials negotiated a pact that set the stage for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Efforts to arouse environmentalists were largely unsuccessful.

"International trade. What would an environmental group know about international trade? The answer was nothing," recalled Steven Shrybman, a lawyer in Toronto at the time who tried to spark the interest of U.S. environmentalists in the treaty.

But in Seattle, environmental groups were everywhere, pushing press releases on reporters, giving television interviews, taunting delegates on the street. The loose network of activists conducted live Internet broadcasts of events, and maintained constant communication via cellular phone and e-mail.

More than any other event to date, Seattle was an example of globalized political organizing, abetted by global communications and global transportation. At an organized labor rally, Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng joined the heads of the AFL-CIO, Teamsters and auto workers, where he later warned U.S. politicians not to "ignore the voice of the people."

"I heard accents from France, Germany and Italy out there," said Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper of the nearly 40,000 people who had descended on his city. "This was an international incident. It just happened to take place in the city of Seattle."


With protests around the world - from London to the Phillippines and of course Seattle - government officials across the globe have taken note of the rising backlash and are struggling to address some of the complaints about the WTO and the global economy.

While the WTO scrutinizes its internal processes and struggles to become a more open, inclusive institution, there are other steps underway to make trade more humane and its procedures more democratic.

A growing number of governments, ranging from the United States and the European Union to small nations such as Zimbabwe, have begun consulting more regularly with their non-governmental critics - a process that preceded Seattle but will surely be pushed forward.

And the heads of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund came to Seattle to highlight their pledge to assist have-not countries whose economies are disrupted by the shiftto open markets and the global economy.

Beyond that, a group of national legislators from the United States, Europe and other nations in Seattle created an unprecedented "standing group" of parliamentarians who promised to serve as a new set of eyes and ears when the WTO holds summits, prodding it toward greater participation and openness.

While not as sensational as violence in the street, some observers believe this emergence of an international group of legislators could signal development toward global democracy.

"This was a very important meeting," Steve Charnovitz, a trade expert in Washington, said of the international legislators' session. "It's not an exaggeration to call it a global, constitutional moment."