WTO Failure Portends Limits to 'Open' Trade ; in the End, the 135 Nations Couldn't Find Political Will to Force

By Ron Scherer, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

WTO Failure Portends Limits to 'Open' Trade ; in the End, the 135 Nations Couldn't Find Political Will to Force


Ron Scherer, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When nations start horse-trading over trade, they have to be willing to make sacrifices: Industries may face new competition, unions may see their ranks fall, farmers may have to move off their land.

What became clear last week was that few nations are willing to take the political heat that often comes with such losses. Indeed, the collapse of the protest-marred trade talks is raising a fundamental question about the future: Will 135 nations ever be able to agree on ways to further liberalize trade?

As one trade minister put it afterward: "More nations were trying to take items off the table than put them on the table."

At the least, the failure to launch a new round of global trade negotiations means there will be long delays in resolving nettlesome issues such as ending export subsidies on farm products, keeping e- commerce free of tariffs, and eliminating nontariff restrictions on goods and services.

Immediately after the collapse of the World Trade Organization talks, US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky questioned whether the current system could even be made to work.

"In my judgment, it would be best to take the time out and find a creative means to make the WTO work," she said. The organization's director general, Mike Moore, was told to go back to Geneva to figure out what the WTO should do next.

"What happened in Seattle is an indication of how hard it is to do these things," says former US trade representative Clayton Yeutter, who negotiated the launch of the last round of trade talks in 1986.

One reason it was hard to get things done in Seattle was the disruption in the streets. Thousands of protesters kept delegates from starting the talks on time, and it was difficult to shuttle between hotels, where many of the discussions are normally held. On some nights, the press corps sat entranced in front of television sets showing Seattle police firing canisters of tear gas at activists.

Street celebrations

After the talks failed, college-age demonstrators danced in glee. Groups such as Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, which organized peaceful protests, took credit for the collapse. Developing countries claimed the result showed they could no longer be taken for granted. But in the end, the trade talks fell apart because the key players - the United States, Europe, and Japan - refused to budge from their positions.

"I just don't think there was the political will to get a deal done," says Robert Wright, deputy trade minister for Canada.

Some observers here say the US came into the talks without much flexibility. For example, Japan was pressing the US to agree to negotiate on antidumping statutes, and the Europeans wanted to discuss antitrust laws. …

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