Dec. 21, 2004
From the ashes of Seattle arises one success story -- a blueprint for future WTO talks.

For a week such words as failure and fiasco have been regularly used to describe the recent meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The meeting was a failure, it's claimed, because representatives of the 135 WTO countries couldn't agree on an agenda for a new round of world trade negotiations. It was a fiasco, it's said, because of the anti-WTO protests in the streets. Underlying these comments is an assumption that Seattle stopped more than a half century of progress toward liberalized trade -- toward more open markets and more open discussion of trade issues. I disagree. Indeed, I would argue that four trade issues on which the WTO members could not agree in Seattle constitute the de facto agenda for a new round of trade negotiations. Those four issues are: 1. Agricultural subsidies: Manufacturing's interest is twofold. For food processing companies, agricultural products are raw materials, and reduced subsidies mean lower costs. For capital equipment producers, agricultural producers are an important market. 2. Anti-dumping practices. The key question is, where does dumping cross the line between legitimate economic correction and blatant protection? 3. Intellectual property protection: There is disagreement on whether developing countries, eager for economic development, should be allowed to disrespect established rules. 4. E-commerce: In the business community feelings run strong against sweeping regulation of e-commerce. It will take time for consensus to build and for these four issues to emerge as the agenda for a new round of trade talks. This may or may not occur until after the U.S. presidential and congressional elections next year. In the meantime, trade will go on. The U. S. and Canada, for example, will continue to trade at the remarkable rate of US$1 billion per day. And the equivalent of trillions of dollars will move around the world every day to finance trade and seize investment opportunities. One inescapable realty, generally ignored by the mass media, is that global commerce -- in content and pace -- is moving much faster than are small political organizations, including, most especially, the WTO and many of the national governments of its member countries. They are not leading, but rather are following behind rather distantly, the realities of international commerce. The WTO and many of the nations that are its members are mired in the minutiae of rule writing and almost oblivious to the fast-changing economic and commercial environments. The WTO and the trade ministries of many nations seem more focused on perpetuating their bureaucratic processes than on creatively advancing trade to the benefit of all countries and, most important, to the benefit of all of their citizens. Many of those citizen-protesters were not sleepless in Seattle. And, admittedly, some of their actions were rude and downright alienating. But trade is not a process for the WTO only. Or business. Or labor. Or environmentalists. Or human rights activists. All have a continuing stake in the trade process -- a stake that extends beyond their immediate and specific concerns. For decades business leaders have complained that the public doesn't care about trade. Well, the public does care, and as Seattle demonstrated, some are passionate in the extreme. A failure? A fiasco? No, Seattle was and is an opportunity to begin a serious and more encompassing dialogue about trade -- not about the trade rules of the past, but about those that fit the realities of the present and the future. This is a time for national governments and the WTO to open their eyes and open access to the trade process. They need to be leading and not following. They need to be empowering people to be partners in the process of advancing trade, to be creative partners in that process and in the process of building political consensus. And there's no better place to start than with the four-point de facto agenda that is the real story of Seattle. John S. McClenahen is an IW senior editor based in Washington, D.C.

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