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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Trading Away Democracy

Why the Seattle WTO talks failed

When the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last December ended in disarray, many commentators blamed the 50,000 environmentalists, trade union members, and human-rights activists who demonstrated outside. While the protests did catch the nation's imagination, responsibility for the fiasco must also fall on the WTO itself. The trade talks didn't fail because the world wants to retreat to protectionism; they collapsed because the WTO is the Wrong Trade Organization.

While the U.S. Trade Representative seemed oblivious to the changing nature of the debate, it was clear enough to President Clinton by the time he got to Seattle. As Clinton explained to me and other environmental leaders while the talks were unraveling, Washington, D.C., recognizes two kinds of public-policy matters: "contract" and "normative" issues. Contract issues are those like Bosnia or arms treaties, which voters acknowledge are so complex or so removed from their personal priorities that they are willing to contract them out to trusted elected leaders.

"Normative" issues, on the other hand, are those like school prayer or abortion, on which almost all voters have firm opinions. They decide to trust—or distrust—politicians based on the degree to which the politician's position echoes their own values and feelings. International trade, the president told us in Seattle, is no longer like sugar-beet subsidies. It's more like gun control.

The reason for the transformation is the recent metamorphosis of international trade. First under GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and more recently under the WTO, trade policy has become the vehicle of choice for the world's large corporations to advance their interests—at the expense of the environment and workers' rights. For the WTO, national laws protecting dolphins or sea turtles or prohibiting the products of sweatshop labor are just "illegal barriers to trade."

This strategy, naturally, did not sit well with the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, the United Steelworkers of America, and other organizations opposed to corporate power that have been educating their members about the growing power of the WTO. Those efforts helped shift the politics of the debate. When the American people learn that their hard-won rights are being taken away by secret trade tribunals, polls reveal, they aren't inclined to defer to think-tank experts or career bureaucrats. Rather, they're ready to tell the WTO to take its undemocratic rules and get out of town.

Ironically, President Clinton himself has helped set the stage for the anti-WTO revolt. In his speeches, he constantly extols the virtues of those who "work hard and play by the rules." Rules, after all, are what make a civil society possible; in a democracy, we all have a hand in making them. The Clean Air Act, for example, includes ideas from the Sierra Club and the Chamber of Commerce, from Democrats and Republicans, from the Steelworkers and the American Farm Bureau. It may not be intellectually tidy, but it's something much more important: a democratic product, the result of many years of open debate.

Boosters of the World Trade Organization praise it as a "rules based" trade system. If that's so, then it's legitimate for citizens of a democracy to ask what the rules are, who makes them, and who referees them. It turns out that the WTO's rules are made of, by, and for the transnational corporations, and adjudicated by anonymous judges meeting in secret with confidential legal briefs. Hidden from public view, they decide whether to accept or reject the Clean Air Act, or whether Europeans should be forced to eat genetically engineered food. This isn't playing by the rules, it's making them up and forcing them on the rest of us. And it doesn't matter if the WTO's rules are good, bad, or indifferent: Secret trials are a sign of tyranny, whether they take place in Geneva or Stalinist Russia.

The WTO says that it wants to focus on trade, and that other forums should negotiate disagreements over human rights or the environment or labor standards. But if the WTO insists on leaving workplace issues to the International Labor Organization and global warming to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it can't also insist that it alone can authorize trade sanctions. Nations, after all, have two powerful tools to exert influence—trade and war. If we don't want to use gunboats to enforce the Montreal Protocol against ozone-damaging chemicals or the Convention to End Economic Discrimination Against Women, we need to enforce them at the customs docks. The WTO can't assert a monopoly on the use of trade sanctions unless it is willing to take all human values into account.

Otherwise it will fail. Would that be so bad? After all, the WTO's blinkered rules aren't necessary for world trade. There are thousands of businesses in other countries producing clean products in safe workplaces with decent wages, products that Americans could buy with pride. There are thousands of family farmers in this country growing safe food, using seeds that haven't been genetically engineered and pesticides that have been tested for safety, that Europeans would gladly buy instead of biotech monstrosities. In the end, the WTO is about coercion, about making the world safe for companies that don't want to make decent products in a decent way. It's about taking away the rights of communities to decide, democratically, what values they hold and wish to nurture. As long as the WTO remains committed to tyranny rather than democracy, it will continue to fail, and rightly so.


CARL POPE is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org.

For more information, see the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade website.


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