December 3, 1999
After Clinton's Push, Questions About Motive
By DAVID E. SANGER
EATTLE -- 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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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."