Sleepwalking to Seattle

Published in The Times, in November 1999.

China is catching the trade liberalisation train just as rapidly increasing numbers of people on the rest of the world are calling on their governments to get off. Monday’s trade agreement with the US opens the way for China’s rapid accession to the World Trade Organisation. This may further fuel the fears of those wishing to leave the train.

In two weeks time President Clinton will launch the Millennium Round of trade liberalisation talks in Seattle. In so doing he will precipitate the largest, and loudest, values collision since the end of the Cold War. It will not, however, be between competing nations, but between governments on the one hand and a vast and diverse array of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the other.

The preparations by governments and the WTO for Seattle have been fraught with difficulties. With a fortnight to go, there is still no clear agreement on what issues the Round should address. The US desire to include trade and labour issues for predominantly domestic electoral reasons is being vigorously resisted by the developing countries who are however as keen as the US to overcome EU and Japanese efforts to maintain special status under the WTO for agriculture.

Not surprisingly, the balancing act required to prevent a complete collapse of the Round before it has even got off the ground is commanding the full attention of Trade Ministers.  Little, if any, political effort has gone into preparing public opinion for the launch of the Round and none at all into addressing the growing alienation of large sectors of civil society from trade liberalisation goals. Yet the political context of the Millennium Round has been transformed by three important developments which have taken place since the Uruguay Round was launched over a decade ago.

First, the creation of a binding disputes process within the WTO represents a considerable enhancement of its authority. This has not been accompanied by any comparable increase in its legitimacy. The result is a widening trust deficit exacerbated by some very clumsy actions by the US which have resulted in considerable public sympathy for the plight of Scottish weavers or French cheesemakers whose interests have been damaged by the fallout from unrelated disputes over bananas or beef. The consequences of WTO decisions affect diverse constituencies much more directly and much more widely than did those of the GATT.

Second, the creation of a single global information space has increased the capacity of the non-governmental organisations to organise effective interventions in international negotiations and to dominate the broadcast, print and electronic media coverage of those negotiations. The latest reports suggest that some 1,200 non-governmental organisations will mobilise between 50 – 100,000 people to take part in a wide variety of protest actions in Seattle.

The common thrust to what will be a diverse range of concerns is the argument that the WTO uses its power at the behest of multinational corporations systematically to undermine efforts to promote health, protect the environment, ensure food safety and improve working conditions, especially for children. What is more, it does so in a way which is secretive, exclusive and unaccountable. These criticisms, whilst overstated, have validity. This validity will provide effective moral cover for the equally large legion of more protectionist voices that will also be present in Seattle.

Third, the apparently unstoppable momentum of globalisation has generated very widespread anxieties and a deep sense of threat among publics in rich and poor countries alike as globalisation of opportunity seems nowhere to be accompanied by globalisation of responsibility. These anxieties have created a rich substrate of anti-globalisation and anti-multinational corporation sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere, on which traditional protectionist and opportunistic political forces are already feeding. 

The potential for these diffuse anxieties to crystallise into more focused domestic opposition to further trade liberalisation is considerable. A Seattle meeting dominated in the public mind by the NGO agenda would provide a potent catalyst for just such a crystallisation.

Trade Ministers seem unaware of the significance of these developments or of their potential to de-rail politically the Seattle Round. They seem to have learnt nothing from the failure of the Multi-lateral Agreement on Investment where a late intervention by the NGOs, organised predominantly on the Internet, allowed reluctant governments to exploit the disruption of public support and kill the negotiations. If they continue to sleepwalk to Seattle they may find that they have found agreement on an agenda for the Millennium Round only to lose the domestic political support necessary to advance that agenda.

The NGOs are far better prepared for Seattle. They will undoubtedly publish and distribute a daily newspaper as they have done at all international negotiations since 1972. They will make far more sophisticated use of the Internet than is possible for governments to ensure that their spin on daily developments dominates the domestic reporting of the meeting.  They will exploit to the full the inevitable longeurs of any difficult international negotiation to meet the attendant journalists’ need for daily stories.  The result will be an inexorable loss of control of the media agenda by governments and the WTO who have neither the experience nor the resources to compete effectively.

When the Uruguay Round was launched international trade policy was the exclusive preserve of governments and such media and public interest as there was found expression in the financial pages of the broadsheet newspapers.  This is no longer the case. In many other areas of international public policy as diverse as AIDS, malaria control, human rights, landmines, development assistance, disaster relief  and the environment, international agreements are now still determined by governments but only with extensive participation from the institutions of civil society. The common focus for the very wide range of non-governmental interests present in Seattle will be the demand for a level of inclusion now customary elsewhere.

The WTO has little experience with such participation and many, perhaps a majority, of its members express a reluctance verging on hostility to any opening up of its processes to civil society.  China, when it joins, is unlikely to be a powerful new force for further transparency and accountability. The current efforts of the new Secretary-General of the WTO to forestall the critics of further trade liberalisation are strikingly reminiscent of the failed efforts of the chemical, nuclear and biotechnology industries to neutralise their critics. Simply reasserting more loudly the benefits of your activities feeds rather than calms public anxiety.

Further trade liberalisation is a long standing strategic goal of the United Kingdom and is essential if the world is to make a successful transition to sustainable development. But it can no longer be trade liberalisation at any price and nor can the advocates of further trade liberalisation assume that their rules will take automatic precedence over other rules of international conduct.

Both the authority and the legitimacy of the WTO’s rules will be undermined by the forthcoming collision in Seattle. Restoration will require both a more transparent and participative rule making process and a more carefully articulated relationship between the trade rules and other international rule systems. The UK should make these goals central to its negotiating position not only for Seattle but also for China’s entry into the WTO.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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