Two weeks from now, representatives of 134 nations will gather in rainy Seattle under the umbrella of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Formally known as the WTO's Third Ministerial Conference, the meeting, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, is expected to give the go-ahead to the ninth post-World War II round of international trade negotiations. There will be plenty to talk about in Seattle. Predictably, wide differences exist between economically developed and economically developing countries over the agenda for a new round of trade talks. Market access, investment rules, preferential tariff treatment, and regulations covering e-commerce and other kinds of Web traffic are among the several dozen matters contending for inclusion. But even among developed nations, dramatic differences exist over the agenda for a new round of trade negotiations. For example, the U.S. is seeking a limited agenda that includes agricultural subsidies, "transparent" government procurement practices, and liberalized trade in chemicals, energy, environmental goods, forest products, medical and scientific equipment, jewels and gems, fish, and toys. Meanwhile, the 15-country European Union (EU) is after an ambitious agenda that ranges from adjusting industrial and agricultural tariffs to writing rules on antitrust matters, nonfinancial services, and trade-related environmental issues. And the EU is seeking agreement on international investment rules, an accord not reached during the 1986-1993 Uruguay Round nor in subsequent protracted bargaining within the multinational Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development. One senses from the public war of words that has been underway for the last six months that the national representatives will arrive in Seattle ready to do battle. It's good to see governments get emotional about trade and about their respective stakes in it. And though they're often contentious, from both public and private exchanges a workable, if not fully satisfying, set of priorities is likely to emerge. But the WTO conferees won't be the only people arguing the pros and cons of specific trade tactics. Some labor and environmental activists, determined to create a ruckus, have been planning and rehearsing their tactics for several months. Also, pro-trade U.S. business representatives will be in Seattle trying to get their messages across -- although the world probably won't be treated to the sight of some corporate CEO scaling the Space Needle and unfurling a banner proclaiming that "Trade is good." Private-sector posturing will be every bit as beneficial as the priority-setting that takes place in official meetings. For years, U.S. business executives have complained they haven't been able to get their employees interested in something called global trade. But now, more than at any other time that I can remember during the last three decades, people are talking about trade. They have opinions about trade. They're even beginning to understand their personal stake in trade. They may not grasp the arcana of trade, they don't need to. I hope that the war of words that has been taking place in the weeks and months leading up to Seattle continues -- and expands. The "rightness" or "wrongness" of particular views is less important than that people hold views and that they care enough about trade to have opinions and are eager to express their views. Industry, from basic metal benders to the most sophisticated biotech and info-tech companies, has a tremendous opportunity in Seattle to engage those who will listen (and those who at least initially are reluctant to listen) in a roundtable on trade. But U.S. manufacturers in particular must be better prepared than they have ever been if they're to have any significant impact on the trade debate. Executives must talk about the things they and other people can relate to: the clothes they buy, the foods they eat, the appliances they use, the jobs they have, the customers outside the U.S. they are (or should be) in contact with. Executives who are arrogant, inarticulate, ill-informed, and simply out of their element will not connect with either the WTO officials in Seattle or the other interest groups who are there to make their views known. And the absolute worst mistake business could make is to believe it can cobble together a lowest-common-denominator coalition and get away with such empty generalities as "Trade is good." Nor should business executives assume that Seattle is an "us" vs "them" situation. There will be profound differences on several issues. But there also will be plenty of common ground. And ultimately the war of words in Seattle should be a battle against ignorance and misunderstanding, a battle not measured in terms of winners and losers, but in the hundreds of different ways more economic opportunity can be created for a diverse and interdependent trading world.
McClenahen is an IW senior editor based in Washington, D.C.