GATT: The Final Act

By Weissman, Robert | Multinational Monitor, October 1994 | Go to article overview

GATT: The Final Act

Weissman, Robert, Multinational Monitor

IF YOU LIKED NAFTA, you'll love the new GATT.

That view is shared by U.S. proponents and opponents of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the latest version of the 122-nation agreement which governs world trade.

Consumer advocate and Uruguay Round GATT opponent Ralph Nader calls the new GATT, "NAFTA on steroids."

"GATT is a much bigger deal than NAFTA for many companies," agrees John Howard, director of international policy and programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a strong Uruguay Round supporter. "Some within industry say GATT is worth 10 NAFTAs combined," adds Kevin Shannon, director of international affairs for the Electronics Industry Association.

The Uruguay Round and the North American Free Trade Agreement are very similar in their orientation. Both cut tariffs. More importantly, both extend trade rules to new areas of the economy -- to laws governing foreign investment in manufacturing, trade and investment in services and protections for intellectual property (patents, copyrights and trademarks), and to so-called technical barriers to trade, which include consumer, environmental and workplace safety regulations.

But the new GATT stakes are bigger, and the dynamics of the agreement are qualitatively different, than with NAFTA for a number of important reasons. While NAFTA only involves three nations, the Uruguay Round would involve most of the countries in the world and affects more than four-fifths of world trade. The Uruguay Round would create a standing organization, known as the World Trade Organization (WTO), to administer global trade rules and provide a structure for developing new rules. The WTO would be a major new international organization with significant powers, and would maintain a legal personality like the United Nations or the World Bank. And although the United States would be the most powerful player in the World Trade Organization, it would have a far less dominant role than it does in overseeing NAFTA. This is due both to the larger number of member countries in GATT and the fact that the two most powerful U.S. trading powers, Japan and the European Union, will be members of the WTO.

Supporters claim the Uruguay Round agreement will generate hundreds of billions of dollars for the U.S. and global economies over the next decade. Opponents dispute the validity of the estimates of economic gain, but focus their criticisms on the new GATT's political and legal effects. They charge it will substantially impair the ability of the federal, state and local governments to control corporate activity, to the detriment of environmental, consumer and worker well-being.

Although critics have voiced a range of far-reaching concerns about the Uruguay Round's effect on Third World societies and the global ecology, the final debate preceding implementation of the Uruguay Round will focus only on its effect on the United States. The U.S. Congress will vote on the Uruguay Round and on implementing legislation to conform domestic laws to the terms of the trade agreement in late November or early December. If Congress votes to approve the Uruguay Round, the World Trade Organization is expected to begin operations in January 1995.

The great GATT divide

The battle lines in the Uruguay Round debate generally parallel those of the NAFTA controversy.

Opposing the Uruguay Round are: consumer groups, including Public Citizen, which is the leader of the anti-Uruguay Round coalition; environmental groups, which in contrast to their positions on NAFTA, are united in opposition to the Uruguay Round; organized labor, with the textile and garment workers' unions and the International Union of Electrical Workers as the most prominent critics; Ross Perot and his grassroots organization United We Stand America; and various right-wing individuals and organizations, including Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina. …

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