World Trade Organization summit prompts international dissension

Sascha Matuszak

The third World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference began Sunday in Seattle, attended by gray-clad diplomats and protesters dressed as colorful butterflies.
But the protester-lobbyist interaction — or lack thereof — might be more engaging than the actual conference and what could come of it.
“There will be a sort of fracas as the ragtag band of objectors make their point and seek media attention,” said Ford Runge, University professor of applied economics.
He added much of this attention is “phantasmagoric” in nature, meaning skewed from reality.
More than 50,000 people from around the nation and the globe will converge on Seattle to protest child-labor laws, free-trade practices, corporate economic domination, environmental destruction and other issues.
Meanwhile, diplomats and businessmen will launch a new round of trade negotiations on topics such as international labor standards, agricultural trade practices, genetically modified foods and intellectual-property rights.
“There seems to be a ludicrous quality to this whole thing,” Runge said. “These trade negotiators are being depicted as being evil when most of them are meek diplomats.”
But diplomats and protesters have one thing in common: lobbying.
“(The summit) is a necessary step in the process that allows various … interest groups to stake their positions,” said Terry Roe, another University professor of applied economics. “They will provide the raw data for setting the agenda.”
High-level haggling will determine the issues to be discussed over the next few years. But no action will come out of the summit.
“All the controversial issues are going to be relegated to working groups,” Runge said. “Their scripts are already set.”
The lack of U.S. leadership has taken wind out of the summit’s sails, leaving the protesters breathless, but without much ahead in terms of action.
“They wanted to get something rolling, but nothing is going to come out of this,” said Tim Kehoe, a University economics professor. “The WTO talks are stalled until the U.S. has a new president.”
Instead, the summit might provide a forum for Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley to differentiate themselves on international trade issues.
“The rest of the world isn’t taking this seriously,” Kehoe said. “It is a bit of a disaster for the U.S.”
A disaster because the summit, which has attracted thousands of protesters, is being snubbed by much of the international media.
But trade issues will receive more attention than the last WTO ministerial meeting 10 years ago. The Montreal summit drew few, if any, protesters.
“Unfortunately, I think the issues have been hijacked by people whose primary motives are protectionist,” Runge said.
Protesters seem to be anti-trade as well as anti-WTO, which might be counterproductive, according to economists.
“We’re all concerned with child labor, but restricting trade is probably not the way to solve this problem,” Roe said.
Instead, economists and experts argue trade liberalization will lead to harmonization of industry standards and technological spillover as well as other positive effects.
“You want countries to increase their trade,” Roe said.

Sascha Matuszak covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]