Rage Against The Machine

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At the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization, the bureaucrats may not have accomplished all that much last week. The chaos that surrounded them did. In this moment of triumphant capitalism, of planetary cash flows and a priapic Dow, all the second thoughts and outright furies about the global economy collected on the streets of downtown Seattle and crashed through the windows of NikeTown. After two days of uproar scented with tear gas and pepper spray, the world may never again think the same way about free trade and what it costs. At the very least, the dull but profound business of trade rules--which are usually hammered out by technocrats in closed meetings with corporate lobbyists hovering outside--will figure differently in the thinking of the billions of people around the world whom the decisions affect. That might even happen soon enough to influence the next U.S. election, which helps account for some of the ways that Bill Clinton, who arrived in Seattle in the middle of the chaos, positioned himself when he got there. But neither Clinton nor U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky was able to avert what must be viewed as a disaster: the WTO representatives' failure to reach agreement on launching the Millennial Round of trade talks. The delegates went home empty-handed.

Not so WTO opponents, who left claiming victory, believing that what they hate about globalization will now come into focus as clearly as the familiar arguments in favor of it--that freer trade creates jobs for everybody and lower prices for consumers. Indeed, free trade has been an important reason for the '90s boom. Even as Seattle assessed the damage on Friday, the Dow was soaring nearly 250 points on news that the U.S. unemployment rate was stuck at its 30-year low. But the protesters were in Seattle to insist that globalization has become another word for capitulation to the worst excesses of capitalism, a cover for eliminating hard-won protections for the environment and workers' rights. Before Seattle, we were dead in the water on trade, says George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers of America. The big companies had their way completely. Now we've raised the profile of this issue, and we're not going back. Says Larry Dohrs, an activist with the Seattle chapter of the Free Burma Coalition: Strong majorities of American voters support basic labor rights and environmental provisions in trade agreements. It's that simple.

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Trade issues are anything but simple. Demonstrators who want justice for poor nations were reminded last week that Third World delegates to the WTO don't want developed nations to force them to allow union organizing. Cheap labor is their competitive advantage. Environmentalists who want the WTO to keep its hands off U.S. laws that protect endangered species would happily force Venezuela--against its sovereign will--to clean up its gasoline exports.

Because it deals with so many separate issues, from farm subsidies to intellectual-property rights, the WTO attracts a very mixed bag of opponents, which is one reason that opposition to it has been hard to focus. Some of the WTO opponents want to reform the organization. Some want to abolish it. Virtually all of them resent the secrecy in which the WTO makes decisions that its 135 member nations are supposed to abide by.

Dohrs' Burma group mobilized against the WTO in part to advance the right of states and localities to boycott companies that do business in Burma, now called Myanmar, which is one of Asia's most saw-toothed dictatorships. But the U.S. State Department sees such boycotts as a violation of federal sovereignty and free trade. Then there are the environmentalists. To protect sea turtles, an endangered species, they want an import ban on shrimp caught in nets that don't have escape hatches to let the turtles swim away. Congress has adopted such a ban, but the WTO forbids it; member nations can't block imports on the basis of the way they are produced. The organization may also eventually forbid American antidumping laws that bar the import of low-cost foreign steel. Those laws are important to American unions. The WTO used the same logic in siding with the U.S. and Canada against European nations that wanted to prohibit the import of beef fed with hormones that Europeans believe may be unsafe.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Seattle, no single objection to the WTO may stand out any better than it has before. But from now on, every objection will be illuminated by the fires of last week. The WTO trade ministers and other delegates had come to Seattle to draw up an agenda for a new round of global trade talks, which are scheduled to last about three years and take up issues like European farm subsidies--of huge importance to U.S. and Canadian agricultural exporters--and whether to tax sales on the Internet.

The backlash in the streets started Tuesday morning, several hours before more than 25,000 largely peaceful marchers headed from a union-backed rally at Memorial Stadium, near the Space Needle, toward the shops and hotels of downtown. Many thousands of other protesters were already converging there, some engaged in peaceful sit-ins that blocked traffic. Things got serious when scattered groups of self-described Black Block anarchists, wearing all-black outfits with handkerchiefs or hoods covering their faces, started to smash windows and trash businesses, giving special attention to companies such as the Gap and Nike that have been accused of using low-wage or child labor to produce some of their merchandise. Peaceful protesters, horror-struck, shouted, Shame! Shame! at the rioters. Once word got out that the streets were haywire, however, a wave of garden-variety thugs headed downtown to smash the windows at Radio Shack and walk off with CD players. Anarchist websites subsequently complained that their boys in black were blamed for the apolitical looting by the later group that ruined their well-planned attack. But the thing about anarchy is, it has a way of getting out of control.

Most of the WTO visiting dignitaries--including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan--spent part of Tuesday trapped in their hotels. With the morning's opening ceremonies canceled, frustrated delegates spent the hours muttering into their cell phones. By late afternoon, as police moved through downtown in armored personnel carriers, a stunned Mayor Paul Schell asked Washington Governor Gary Locke to send in the National Guard. Schell also slapped a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the city's downtown and imposed a 50-square-block no-protest order on downtown, which left demonstrators furious.

On Wednesday, police arrested about 500 demonstrators, dragging many of them feet-first into buses and speeding them off to detention centers, where some of them idly communicated among themselves by flashing in Morse code with their laser pens. Schell and his police chief, Norm Stamper, seemed taken by surprise by the calamity caused by the demonstration. If so, they were the only ones. Protest leaders had long promised as much, and websites have been bubbling for months about the gathering. Hundreds of would-be demonstrators attended camps in civil disobedience earlier this year in preparation. In a building not far from downtown, organizers literally mapped out about a dozen areas where they planned to choke off central Seattle so that delegates could not reach their meetings.

The police lost control first of downtown and then, in some cases, of themselves. Many of the demonstrators complained that the cops were using rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray against nonviolent protesters while a few blocks away vandals freely roamed the city throwing litter baskets through store windows. These complaints were seconded by angry residents of the city's Capitol Hill district, where police pursued protesters with tear gas and concussion grenades despite the fact that the area was outside the no-protest zone.

Early Wednesday morning Bill Clinton arrived. After being driven through the streets of broken glass and police lines, he ascended to a suite on an upper floor at the Westin Hotel and flipped on local news, where he saw for the first time the scenes of chaos that had raged all around his hotel earlier that day.

Clinton moved quickly to adapt to the new conditions, keenly mindful of the fact that labor unions and environmental groups are crucial parts of the coalition that Al Gore hopes will take him to the White House. At two appearances the following day, Clinton departed from his prepared text to emphasize that it would be necessary from now on to explain to people more clearly the ways that trade benefited them and to open up the WTO so that its rulings were more legitimate in the eyes of the people they affected. If the WTO expects to have public support grow for our endeavors, the public must see and hear and, in a very real sense, actually join in the deliberations, said Clinton.

Before the president left, an interview with him appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that unnerved some WTO delegates almost as much as the rioting had. Low-wage, developing nations at the meeting, led by India, Egypt and Brazil, were incensed that Clinton told the paper he wanted a working group on labor to be established within the WTO to develop core standards for wages, working conditions and other labor issues that should be part of every trade agreement. Ultimately, he said, they should be enforced through trade sanctions, the WTO's ultimate weapon.

The word sanctions sent delegates from developing nations up the wall. Thailand's Minister of Commerce, Supachai Panitchpakdi, who takes over as WTO chief in 2002, warned that if Clinton insisted on the issue, developing countries could walk away from any agreement on a new round of talks. To them, Clinton's words were nothing but protectionism wrapped in progressivism. But that position happens to be the one taken by the AFL-CIO. Unhappy about the White House trade deal to admit China to the WTO--an agreement that labor is now better armed to fight in Congress--the unions had pressed Clinton to push their case on labor rules in Seattle.

By late Friday night, negotiations to get agreement on an agenda for a new round of global-trade negotiations collapsed. Exhausted WTO delegates said they would try again next year in Geneva to bridge huge differences.

Public attention will eventually shift from the mayhem of last week, but a new political sensitivity may endure--one that gives the protesters a platform for concerns heretofore ignored by the WTO bureaucrats and elected representatives alike. In America trade policy has been conducted by Úlites in Washington, explains Craig Johnstone, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Now the issue is very visibly moving out into the streets. Those who want to promote trade are going to have to make their case much more vigorously. Thomas d'Aquino, president of Canada's Business Council on National Issues agrees. We have to roll our sleeves and work a lot harder at getting the message out.

It is a pretty compelling message. And if they can deliver it with anywhere near the vigor that was demonstrated by the antis last week in Seattle, free trade may yet win the day.