The World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Seattle will be a defining moment for the world's commitment to sustainable development. It will also be a defining moment for U.S. leadership on sustainable development.
The WTO is the international entity responsible for overseeing implementation of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The WTO agreement explicitly states that trade should be conducted "in accordance with the objective of sustainable development." As the agreement recognizes, trade is a means of achieving sustainable development; it is not an end in itself. It is time to hold the WTO and its member states to that objective.
Sustainable development is not a buzzword or another way of talking about environmental protection. It is a framework for reconciling key international goals, and it applies to national actions as well.
Understanding sustainable development requires an understanding of development, a misused term that has a specific meaning in the international community. Development is intended to improve the quality of human life and generate opportunity by fostering peace and security, human rights (or social development), and economic development. But this cannot occur without a fourth component--supportive national governance. An international consensus about these goals grew out of World War II and the Great Depression. This understanding of development is taken directly from a variety of international agreements, U.N. General Assembly Resolutions, and reports of the U.N. Development Program.
Since World War II, development has accomplished much good. People are living longer, more people are enjoying a higher standard of living, and we have not experienced a third world war. This is due in part to the 1947 Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
But the post-World War II development model has two failings, according to Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. The number of people living in poverty is now greater than ever, and widespread environmental degradation is occurring in every region of the world.
The Commission found that each of the four basic components of development--peace and security, social development, economic development, and supportive national governance--required protection, and even restoration, of the environment. Continued development is compromised and even prevented by inattention to the environment. People have fought over water and scarce resources. Environmental contamination and disease kill people or prevent them from living decent lives. People cannot earn a living from fishing when there are few fish to catch. …