"Ding Dong the Round is Dead,"
WTO in Seattle
Agricultural issues toppled WTO talks
by Stephen H. Dunphy
Seattle Times business columnist
It was Wednesday, midweek in the World Trade Organization marathon, and President Clinton and WTO Director General Mike Moore were lunching with delegates in the Spanish Ballroom of the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, far from the madding crowd in the streets outside.
As Clinton and Moore prepared to give their speeches to the delegates, a television film-crew member stepped in front of the podium, holding up a white napkin for a color check for news cameras.
Moore joked that the white napkin could become the new flag for the WTO. Of course, there was only one problem with Moore's joke. It turned out to be true. The WTO did end up showing the white flag for its talks in Seattle.
Shortly after 11 p.m. Friday night, it surrendered, saying the issues before delegates
were too complicated to work out in the time remaining and the differences between
member nations too broad a gulf to cross.
It was not supposed to work out that way. And in the parlance of trade negotiations,
many questions were left on the table: Was it worth it? Did protesters in the streets
really have an impact on what was happening inside? And what's next for this
organization that became a metaphor for all that is wrong with globalization?
The real answers depend on which side of the prism you are looking through.
Exulting leaders of protest groups were doing high fives at the Washington State
Convention and Trade Center after word spread of the collapse of talks.
"Ding Dong the Round is Dead," one flier distributed by a consumer group read.
For all their claims to victory, however, the protesters ended up showing the world
that a place like Seattle is much like the rest of the world, still getting used to the
rapid change and confusion that global trade has brought to our lives.
Protesters had an impact, that's certain. But the real collapse of the talks came after a
rebellion by developing countries and deadlock among the United States' biggest
Asked directly if the suspension of talks was a victory for the protesters and the
nongovernmental organizations, Charlene Barshefsky, U.S. trade representative and
chair of the meeting, said it was "the substance of what was being discussed" that
forced weary ministers to head for the airport without even a final communique.
But protesters, who largely marched in peace against the WTO, accomplished at
least one thing. Because of the size of the demonstrations - and in part the
confrontation with police - the views of the opponents to the WTO became much
more visible than they were before the meeting.
And they will likely be taken more into account.
"We cannot ignore what is happening in the streets," said Pascal Lamy, the
European Union's trade commissioner. He said concerns expressed over food
safety, the environment, labor and a more democratic WTO must come into the
room, not be kept outside.
But to illustrate the complexity of what was happening here last week, one cynical
view is that the Europeans took what was happening on the streets and used it for
their own ends.
Europeans, with some of the highest farm subsidies in the world, tried hard to
protect those payments. The U.S. and other agricultural exporting countries wanted
firm action to end all subsidies.
And the EU tried to broaden the agenda to include such things as food safety,
genetically modified food and the environment, then pointed out the window and
said, in effect, "See, we have to talk about these things as well."
In the end, it was an inability to resolve these kinds of base-line issues and questions
about agricultural trade talks that was the main sticking point forcing collapse of the
In another way, anti-WTO demonstrators, who thronged the streets, and official
delegations inside the convention center agreed on one thing: The 5-year-old
Geneva-based organization, created to referee rules of global trade, is a badly flawed
institution in need of repair.
"We're running an institution of over 130 members based on a culture that is 50
years old," said Moore, the WTO director general.
"The WTO really needs reform," said an exhausted Lamy early yesterday. He spoke
shortly after the talks had collapsed following four days of marathon bargaining.
"We found that the WTO has outgrown the processes appropriate for an earlier
time," Barshefsky said.
In the old days, the WTO and its predecessor organization, the General Agreement
on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), conducted trade rounds mainly as the province of rich
countries. But now three-fourths of the 135 nations in the WTO are from the Third
Some African nations became so upset in Seattle about what they saw as exclusion
from the negotiating rooms that they threatened to walk out. That revolt was also a
part of the collapse.
The effort in Seattle was aimed at launching the ninth round of global negotiations to
lower trade barriers since the creation of WTO and its predecessor, GATT.
"We can start again," said Moore at a midnight news conference. "This is not the
first time a round has been postponed." More talks will begin next month in Geneva,
Meanwhile, Moore said, the work done in Seattle would not be lost.
"Everything is frozen," he said, stressing that proposals on the table cannot be
withdrawn. That means the WTO can pick up again with some progress on
agriculture already achieved.
But it also means that an extension of a moratorium on keeping electronic commerce
duty free is lost somewhere in the process. That was a key goal of the Northwest's
Also, an initiative to bring some needed aid to the least-developed countries of the
world, the poorest countries, has been slowed. The WTO had hoped to announce a
plan to lift duties for the 29 or so poorest nations, allowing them unfettered access to
the developed world.
But the real question on the minds of Seattleites is: "Was it worth it?"
The meeting here was supposed to launch what many hoped would be called the
"Seattle Round," putting the city's name into history for the talks that were to start
Instead, Seattle became emblematic of the modern world. The Battle of Seattle - both
inside and outside - exposed for all to see that the transition to a new economic order
might not be so easy after all.
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