December 3, 1999


After Clinton's Push, Questions About Motive


SEATTLE -- The rebellion that is getting all the attention here is the one that is happening on the streets, as protest groups who argue vociferously with each other about what's wrong with the global economy march together to insist that the system must change.


Also in Friday's Times

  • Workers' Rights: U.S. Effort to Add Labor Standards to Agenda Fails
  • Street Rage: Dark Parallels With Anarchy Concocted in Oregon

    Speech Text

  • President Clinton: "Open This System Up"

    Recent Coverage

  • The Overview: In Stormy Seattle, Clinton Chides World Trade Body (Dec. 2)
  • The Blame: Clenched Fists in Seattle Lead to Pointed Fingers (Dec. 2)
  • The Hosts: Seattle Is Stung, Angry and Chagrined as Opportunity Turns to Chaos (Dec. 2)
  • The Visitors: Seeing the Fear of Free Trade Made Concrete (Dec. 2)
  • The Reaction: Internationally, Embarrassment for U.S. (Dec. 2)
  • Keeping French Fears of U.S. Dominance at Bay (Dec. 2)
  • Brazil Has Become the Poster Child for Free Trade (Dec. 2)
  • National Guard Is Called to Quell Trade-Talk Protests (Dec. 1)
  • A Chaotic Intersection of Tear Gas and Trade Talks (Dec. 1)
  • A Time of Trial by Taunt for the World Trade Chief (Dec. 1)
  • Trade Talks Start in Seattle Despite a Few Disruptions (Nov. 30)
  • Protesters Could Steal the Show at Seattle Trade Talks (Nov. 29)
  • Global Trade Forum Reflects a Burst of Conflict and Hope (Nov. 28)
  • Clinton Fails to Get World Leaders to Attend Seattle Trade Talks (Nov. 24)
  • U.S. Reaches an Accord to Open China Economy as Worldwide Market (Nov. 16)
  • Global Trade Harmony? Yeah, Right (Nov. 13)

    At a Glance

  • Protesters' Complaints

    Audio Special

  • Rudra Bach, Protesting in Downtown Seattle

    Video Collection

  • Protesting the World Trade Organization

    Slide Show

  • Protesting the World Trade Organization (Dec. 1)


  • Join a Discussion on the Protests Against the World Trade Organization
  • But an equally fascinating struggle is happening six floors up, in the convention center where President Clinton made a last appeal today to the representatives of the 135 nations gathered here. It is a struggle over how much influence the United States should have in rewriting the rules of the global economy. In those negotiations, the protests are fueled by suspicions that what's going on is an effort to tailor the global trading system to America's competitive strengths and Vice President Al Gore's campaign needs.

    Clinton used his appearances here to contend that developing countries can have it both ways. They can pay workers more and allow them to unionize, he said, or keep from spewing more pollutants into the air and water, without sacrificing economic growth. "I don't know if I've persuaded many of you about this," he said just before leaving.

    By all appearances, he has not persuaded many. The pervasive sense in the hallways of these talks is that Clinton is making a shrewd calculation about how to protect two vital constituencies for Mr. Gore -- labor unions and environmental groups -- that have felt angry and alienated since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

    And talk to the Indians or the French or the Japanese, and all say the same thing: behind the high-minded statements, the United States is hoping to seize an astounding moment of American power -- economic power, cultural power, and military power -- to satisfy powerful domestic constituencies.

    Why else, some have asked, would the United States insist that all e-commerce remain tariff-free? "Because you are the Microsoft economy," said one Japanese negotiator, referring to Seattle's hometown team.

    And why else would the United States refuse to discuss its powerful antidumping laws as part of the negotiations, while insisting that labor and the environment be on the agenda? Because American labor unions demand that Clinton and Gore preserve the most potent weapon in its trade arsenal, diplomats from China and Eastern Europe say.

    The United States seems intent on preserving its unilateral power to slap huge tariffs on imports that underprice similar goods made by American steelmakers or auto companies, they say.

    And if you ask the smaller countries how the game is being played in Seattle, they contend that Clinton is trying to tilt the very playing field that he insists he is trying to level.

    "They have continued with the old GATT way of doing business," said Victor Manuel, the trade representative of El Salvador, referring to the post-World War II group that preceded the World Trade Organization and was dominated by the United States. "They think they can meet in small gatherings and then announce that the two or three most important countries have already come to a consensus. It is very hard for small countries to have any influence on the process."

    There is nothing new in such complaints. Charges of American bullying are as old as international trade negotiations. They are also tactically useful. Countries that are as divided as the protesters outside can unify behind distaste for American power.

    But the Seattle negotiations reveal that the suspicion about American motives has hardened, and the sound of presidential primaries in the background only fuels the skeptics.

    Take Clinton's position on making labor rights a central part of the World Trade Organization's mission. Officially, the United States says it wants a "study group" within the W.T.O. that will examine questions like child labor, poor working conditions and perhaps even the politically volatile issue of how much workers get paid for similar work in different countries.

    India, Brazil, South Africa and other developing nations abhor the idea. A study group, they say, puts them on the slippery slope toward the day when the trade organization might impose trade sanctions against countries that it judges to be coming up short. And the system, they say, would quickly be abused by the United States and other countries to do away with the one competitive advantage that the developing nations enjoy: the ability to pay workers less.

    American officials have spent weeks trying to convince Asians and Africans and others that they have no such evil intent: the study group is there to study.

    Then Clinton stepped on their lines. In an interview with The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, published on the first day of the talks, he said the working group "should develop these core labor standards, and then they ought to be a part of every trade agreement, and ultimately I would favor a system in which sanctions would come for violating any provision of a trade agreement."

    That confirmed the worst suspicions of many countries. A few reportedly threatened to walk out of the labor talks. Clinton's aides have spent the past day here backtracking, beginning sentences with phrases like, "What the President meant to convey was." The question is: Did Clinton's position harden perhaps to satisfy union leaders who are still fuming about letting China into the W.T.O. and are threatening to do little to help Gore, or was he just speaking carelessly?

    "It depends," one negotiator said with a smile, "on what the definition of sanctions is."

    Even some of Clinton's toughest critics, though, say he is in an impossible situation: he needs to press a political agenda at home -- a pro-labor, pro-environment agenda -- that he knows he cannot sell abroad.

    "Personally, I thought he made a very good speech," said François Huwart, the French minister of trade, reflecting in an interview this afternoon on Clinton's contention that over time, countries with high labor and environmental standards will attract new investment and boost their productivity.

    "But it is a speech," he said. "And you have to look closely at the negotiations. There may be a décalage between the way Clinton's speech sounds and the negotiations."

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