Demonizing The WTO

BEWARE of self-serving revisionism that makes a virtue out of alliances that helped scuttle new trade talks after Seattle, also known as The Tear Gas Round.

Carried to ridiculous extremes, the argument suggests that trashing downtown Seattle helped raise the visibility of the World Trade Organization and expose its wretched doings. Baloney.

If labeling were required, most of the four days of rhetoric could be canned and marked 99-percent fact free.

Credit for squelching future talks is really a three-way tie between President Clinton, the WTO itself and European agricultural interests. The celebrated rapprochement between labor and environmentalists was a fleeting romance born of proximity and convenience. Don't expect marriage banns to be published.

The 135 nations of WTO arrived in Seattle without a final agenda to propel trade talks into a new multiyear round. Chief obstructionists included powerful agricultural interests in Europe and Japan, who were not budging from politically volatile farm subsidies. Inertia prevailed.

WTO was lukewarm to any internal reform because less-developed countries fear the very nongovernmental organizations that clogged the streets outside the convention center. Next time, they fear the same behavior could come packaged as hectoring legal briefs.

The WTO missed a prime opportunity to defuse many myths about the Geneva-based system for umpiring trade disputes. WTO's regulatory functions need to be opened up and made public, if for no other reason than self defense. Noncontroversial rulings were grossly distorted by labor and environmental groups.

Overall, the WTO needs to take on its most shameless - and dishonest - critics by doing a better job of explaining itself.

President Clinton was oblivious to the political consequences of suggesting that economic sanctions might be appropriate for countries that violate labor standards. Maybe the WTO was too far gone at that point for him to care.

Clinton was thinking out loud about creating sanctions for labor standards that do not exist and that have never been envisioned for WTO. His only achievement was to insult several nations by name and generally seal the doom of the Seattle, Clinton or Millennium Round.

What most certainly did not happen was a robust exchange of ideas percolating up from the streets. Labor and environmental groups were not interested in nuances about trade or WTO. They arrived with their own narrow points of view.

Is the WTO the evil empire incarnate? After four days of protests and trade talks, there is still no credible way to tell outside of results.