“Can failure give birth to progress?” That was the theme debated in a Paris philosophy café in 1999 a few days after the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) ministerial meeting collapsed under the weight of discord inside the Seattle Convention Center and the rioting outside. Trying to put a positive spin on things, WTO supporters noted that the 1982 ministerial meeting of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) had failed to launch a new round of trade liberalization, but a round was indeed launched at the Uruguay meeting four years later. Similarly, Uruguay Round meetings in 1988 in Montreal and in 1990 in Brussels had failed to conclude an agreement. Yet a few years later an agreement was reached, and the WTO emerged to manage a newly energized move towards free flows of goods, services, capital, and information. Perhaps the 1999 failure was just the usual prelude to success.
I was out on the streets during the Battle of Seattle, and what I saw convinced me that this time failure was failure. None of the other GATT and WTO meetings had provoked such an uproar, and none had been graced by the visit of a U.S. president, Bill Clinton, bent on supporting the demonstrators outside rather than the ministers inside. What they wanted was what he said he wanted: a world less driven by economic exchange and more concerned with values, rights, and norms. Some demonstrators called for an end to globalization, which they saw as the relentless push into the world of giant, power-mad multinational corporations (MNCs). Others, union members mostly, wanted justice for workers everywhere and secure jobs for themselves in the United States. Environmentalists—most of them happy-go-lucky types but a few either enraged or in tears—were conspicu-