Agricultural Issues Toppled WTO Talks

It was Wednesday, midweek in the World Trade Organization marathon, and President Clinton and WTO Director General Mike Moore were lunching with delegates in the Spanish Ballroom of the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, far from the madding crowd in the streets outside.

As Clinton and Moore prepared to give their speeches to the delegates, a television film-crew member stepped in front of the podium, holding up a white napkin for a color check for news cameras.

Moore joked that the white napkin could become the new flag for the WTO. Of course, there was only one problem with Moore's joke. It turned out to be true. The WTO did end up showing the white flag for its talks in Seattle.

Shortly after 11 p.m. Friday night, it surrendered, saying the issues before delegates were too complicated to work out in the time remaining and the differences between member nations too broad a gulf to cross.

It was not supposed to work out that way. And in the parlance of trade negotiations, many questions were left on the table: Was it worth it? Did protesters in the streets really have an impact on what was happening inside? And what's next for this organization that became a metaphor for all that is wrong with globalization?

The real answers depend on which side of the prism you are looking through. Exulting leaders of protest groups were doing high fives at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center after word spread of the collapse of talks.

"Ding Dong the Round is Dead," one flier distributed by a consumer group read.

For all their claims to victory, however, the protesters ended up showing the world that a place like Seattle is much like the rest of the world, still getting used to the rapid change and confusion that global trade has brought to our lives.

Protesters had an impact, that's certain. But the real collapse of the talks came after a rebellion by developing countries and deadlock among the United States' biggest trading partners.

Asked directly if the suspension of talks was a victory for the protesters and the nongovernmental organizations, Charlene Barshefsky, U.S. trade representative and chair of the meeting, said it was "the substance of what was being discussed" that forced weary ministers to head for the airport without even a final communique.

But protesters, who largely marched in peace against the WTO, accomplished at least one thing. Because of the size of the demonstrations - and in part the confrontation with police - the views of the opponents to the WTO became much more visible than they were before the meeting.

And they will likely be taken more into account.

"We cannot ignore what is happening in the streets," said Pascal Lamy, the European Union's trade commissioner. He said concerns expressed over food safety, the environment, labor and a more democratic WTO must come into the room, not be kept outside.

But to illustrate the complexity of what was happening here last week, one cynical view is that the Europeans took what was happening on the streets and used it for their own ends.

Europeans, with some of the highest farm subsidies in the world, tried hard to protect those payments. The U.S. and other agricultural exporting countries wanted firm action to end all subsidies.

And the EU tried to broaden the agenda to include such things as food safety, genetically modified food and the environment, then pointed out the window and said, in effect, "See, we have to talk about these things as well."

In the end, it was an inability to resolve these kinds of base-line issues and questions about agricultural trade talks that was the main sticking point forcing collapse of the talks.

In another way, anti-WTO demonstrators, who thronged the streets, and official delegations inside the convention center agreed on one thing: The 5-year-old Geneva-based organization, created to referee rules of global trade, is a badly flawed institution in need of repair.

"We're running an institution of over 130 members based on a culture that is 50 years old," said Moore, the WTO director general.

"The WTO really needs reform," said an exhausted Lamy early yesterday. He spoke shortly after the talks had collapsed following four days of marathon bargaining.

"We found that the WTO has outgrown the processes appropriate for an earlier time," Barshefsky said.

In the old days, the WTO and its predecessor organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), conducted trade rounds mainly as the province of rich countries. But now three-fourths of the 135 nations in the WTO are from the Third World.

Some African nations became so upset in Seattle about what they saw as exclusion from the negotiating rooms that they threatened to walk out. That revolt was also a part of the collapse.

The effort in Seattle was aimed at launching the ninth round of global negotiations to lower trade barriers since the creation of WTO and its predecessor, GATT.

"We can start again," said Moore at a midnight news conference. "This is not the first time a round has been postponed." More talks will begin next month in Geneva, he noted.

Meanwhile, Moore said, the work done in Seattle would not be lost.

"Everything is frozen," he said, stressing that proposals on the table cannot be withdrawn. That means the WTO can pick up again with some progress on agriculture already achieved.

But it also means that an extension of a moratorium on keeping electronic commerce duty free is lost somewhere in the process. That was a key goal of the Northwest's high-tech community.

Also, an initiative to bring some needed aid to the least-developed countries of the world, the poorest countries, has been slowed. The WTO had hoped to announce a plan to lift duties for the 29 or so poorest nations, allowing them unfettered access to the developed world.

But the real question on the minds of Seattleites is: "Was it worth it?"

The meeting here was supposed to launch what many hoped would be called the "Seattle Round," putting the city's name into history for the talks that were to start here.

Instead, Seattle became emblematic of the modern world. The Battle of Seattle - both inside and outside - exposed for all to see that the transition to a new economic order might not be so easy after all.