The Real Battle in Seattle Is Behind the Scenes

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The demonstrations that threaten to upstage the World Trade Organization summit beginning Tuesday in Seattle may actually help the delegates — by diverting attention from the troubled state of international trade negotiations. Organizers were forced to close the meeting’s venue for security checks Monday, following an attempted break-in overnight Sunday. And tens of thousands of demonstrators championing environmentalist and labor-rights causes are expected to throng the city's streets Tuesday in an effort to disrupt proceedings and draw attention to what they see as an undemocratic body with growing power to override laws made by national governments. But the WTO itself appears riddled with discord, to the extent that its key member states have failed to even reach agreement over the agenda for the Seattle meeting, and President Clinton's bid to break the deadlock by inviting heads of state to attend the meeting failed last week because most leaders wouldn't risk the domestic political costs of showing up in Seattle and failing to bring home a favorable deal.

The WTO is unlikely to offer more than lofty words in response to the demand by the core group of demonstrators — U.S. labor organizations — for enforceable labor codes in developing countries to prevent American workers from being undermined by Third World sweatshops. But tensions between the U.S. and other trading blocs such as the European Union over issues of farm subsidies are more vexing, with the Asian meltdown of 1997 having thrown the global economy out of synch, as many governments once bullish on free trade suddenly felt renewed domestic pressure for protectionist measures. That has only fueled similar pressures in the U.S. For President Clinton, who has made trade a cornerstone of his foreign policy, the best possible outcome in Seattle will be a papering over of differences with lofty rhetoric; the alternative is a nasty spat, not simply between delegates and demonstrators, but among the delegates themselves. Memo to Al Gore: Stay away from this one.