Probing the After-Myth of Seattle: Canadian Public Opinion on International Trade, 1980-2000

By Wolfe, Robert; Mendelsohn, Matthew | International Journal, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Probing the After-Myth of Seattle: Canadian Public Opinion on International Trade, 1980-2000


Wolfe, Robert, Mendelsohn, Matthew, International Journal


FOR THE OFFICIAL PARTICIPANTS, the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in December 1999 failed spectacularly, with tens of thousands of protestors battling thousands of police. After the long anticipated Battle in Seattle, journalists fretted about the apparent debacle in Seattle, leaders of civil society organizations proclaimed the dawn of a new era, and serious academics in proliferating symposia began to refer to the post-Seattle era as they had once talked about the post-cold war 'new world order.' The flamboyant French farmer, Jose Bove, claimed that 'public opinion has already made its decision: the WTO and the way it works are already condemned today by the majority of citizens.'(f.1) Canada's minister for international trade could 'say with more certainty than ever that we are in a very, very different kind of world than we were. I think Seattle has really crystallized a lot of forces, emotions, tensions and creative evolutions that have been in the air for the last 50 years.'(f.2)

The public protests were only one of the battles in Seattle, and arguably not the most important contributor to the failure of the WTO meeting,(f.3) but the after myth of the street battle shapes how scholars, practitioners, and journalists write about the evolving politics of global governance. Internationalists who think that globalization is a 'good thing' worry about growing North American 'globaphobia.' Some experts think that a misinformed public can be 'educated,' while many in the business community think that improved marketing efforts would convince the public of the benefits of free trade.(f.4) Some trade officials think that international organizations must now have glass walls. Members of civil society organizations say that the public has made it clear that the era of corporate rule must come to an end, and Sylvia Ostry wonders if trade policy suffers from the end of what V.O. Key, Jr, called the 'permissive consensus' in international affairs of the earlier postwar decades, that is, the freedom governments had to act as they saw fit in international affairs.(f.5) Others dismiss the Cassandras and claim that since some public polls show that support for trade is undiminished, Seattle was merely a tempest in a Starbucks cup.

In this article we want to probe one aspect of the post-Seattle mythology: do Canadians support active engagement in the economic institutions of global governance? The policy aspects of the question are pressing because of the possible perception, created by activists, that the public thinks globalization, its supposed agents in multinational firms, and their putative agents in the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank have gone too far. The Canadian trade agenda is heavy, with the prospect of new negotiations in the WTO, new regional negotiations, and further Team Canada missions. The Summit of the Americans in Quebec City in April 2001 attracted large protests and the promised aggressive response from security forces. How deep is the support among the Canadian public for present agreements, and how much support is there for new ones? Part of the answer to these questions can be found in public opinion data.

The new mythology about decreasing levels of public support for global governance may have a solid qualitative foundation in protest and activism, but an analysis of available survey research on international trade shows that, in Canada at least, it has little quantitative basis. We find that 'Seattle' had few roots in, or impact on, mass opinion in Canada, although many of the concerns raised by protesters speak to underlying public values that could be mobilized if the Canadian government were to pursue new trade agreements.

Our conclusion does not imply that the protests in Seattle had no political implications. In fact, elites may have been more strongly affected than the general public. American studies of public opinion and international affairs indicate that both officials and politicians tend to look to the media and interest groups for indications of public opinion and to reject polling results that suggest the public might hold different views. …

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