The World Trade Organization issued its first ruling this week, a well-timed stroke that cut to the heart of U.S. debate over free trade.
The substance of the ruling and its timing were remarkable - a fledgling international coalition challenging U.S. environmental laws at the outset of a presidential election year.
The decision, which went against the United States, has ignited a fierce rhetorical battle and could be a harbinger of things to come as international trade policies run headlong into U.S. environmental laws.
"The issue and the timing couldn't have been worse," said Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute. "It goes right at the heart of the question of environment vs. trade, which we've been dancing around." Though the WTO decision ultimately may not have any concrete effect on actual standards for gasoline purity - the subject of its ruling - it could have resounding political ramifications.
Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan already has called for the United States to withdraw from the WTO and has promised to make its "assault" on U.S. sovereignty a campaign issue.
"I think environmental regulations have become too onerous, extensive and extreme, however they were made by Americans," Mr. Buchanan said. "We are not going to surrender our right to make our own laws to some foreign organization where we have no veto power, where we can be outvoted by Barbados."
He's part of an unusual alliance that includes environmental groups such as Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, which says U.S. trade policies threaten to undermine progress on cleaning the environment.
The opposition group is countered by centrists in Congress and many economists, who say international cooperation makes good economic sense and eventually will compel U.S. trading partners to rise to tougher U.S. environmental standards.
"We set up this process," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, who called the WTO ruling "an open-and-shut case" against the United States.
Ultimately the United States will win more than it loses, Mr. Kolbe said. But he and others fear the timing and content of the WTO ruling could lead to a dismantling of agreements that have taken decades to establish.
Trade protectionists such as Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Kolbe said, "always forget the consumer in this. The consumers have more choices and lower prices; they benefit."
The WTO ruling, made by a panel of three jurists and announced Wednesday, favored Venezuela and Brazil, which had challenged U. …