December 4, 1999
Trade Obstacles Unmoved, Seattle Talks End in Failure
By JOSEPH KAHN and DAVID E. SANGER
EATTLE -- Global trade
talks ended late Friday night in complete
failure, with the United States abandoning any effort to put together a
new round of global trade talks.
The collapse of the talks marks
one of the largest defeats for
Clinton's trade policy in his seven
years in office, and it was a serious
blow to his administration, which
had hoped to use the Seattle meeting
to advance a bold agenda for trade
talks that would stretch into the next
But disagreements on a wide array of issues, including several that
were high priorities for President
Clinton, as well of the disruption of
violent protests, made it impossible
to conclude negotiations successfully
by late night, according to World
Trade Organization officials.
The officials said negotiations
would resume at the trade organization's headquarters in Geneva early
next year. But the failure here
means that the Geneva talks will
cover a far narrower group of subjects, including agriculture and
trade in service, and will fall far
short of the goal set by the trade
organization and the Clinton administration: the beginning of broad new
round of global trade talks.
"There were a range of serious
sticking points, and we found it difficult to knit together any kind of final
agreement," Keith Rockwell, the
trade organization's spokesman,
said late last night. "We realized
there was just no way it could be
done in Seattle."
Rockwell said that the trade
organization and its members still
intended to push for talks on many of
the sensitive issues that were addressed here, but had set no date for
resuming formal discussions on a
framework for a new round of trade
Clinton had seen the talks here
as a chance to secure his reputation
as a free trader with a social conscience. Those hopes were thwarted
by the combination of occasionally
violent street protests and tepid support for many administration goals
among both rich and poor nations.
Equally disappointed were those
who favor an aggressive agenda for
talks in coming years, as well as
those who want to make the trade
group more sensitive to labor and
Protests continued throughout the
day outside the Seattle convention
center. But with a heavy police presence, there were no disruptions.
Negotiators, who were locked in
discussions well past their deadline
Friday night, had seemed close to a final
But draft texts and conversations with people involved in
the talks made it clear that it would
have outlined only a minimal, narrow basis for future talks.
As the talks bogged down, Peter S.
Watson, former head of the International Trade Commission and a leading trade lawyer in Washington,
said: "What you're seeing is the effect of the demonstrations, as well as
some real disagreements among the
They have a commitment to trade talks' going forward. But they are delaying all the
hard decisions for future negotiations."
The United States had persuaded
Europe and Japan to agree on talks
that could eliminate subsidies on
farm goods, but only at the cost of
two firmly held American positions.
One opposes reviewing rules to
prevent countries from selling below-cost goods in a foreign market, a
practice called "dumping." Washington also seemed to step back from
its goal of widening markets for genetically modified foods.
And the Clinton administration
stumbled in its efforts to make labor
rights a core part of trade negotiations in the future. The United States
had already backed away from its
original goal of setting up a working
group on labor in the World Trade
Organization. But it kept struggling
to obtain a consensus on a forum that
would operate outside the trade
group but ultimately report to it.
One significant stumbling block
was the push to open the trade group
to increased public scrutiny. Ending
the secretive ways was a common
demand among many protesters
here and became a top priority for
the Clinton administration. Draft
documents suggest that members of
the trade group took only baby steps
on the issue.
Negotiators did reach a preliminary accord that would have allowed
more trade documents to be declassified and circulated to the public,
people close to the talks said. But
even so, trials held by the judges in
the trade group would have remained off limits to observers, and
the judges would not have accepted
"friend of the court" briefs from
people who wanted to voice opinions
on sensitive issues, the people close
to the talks added.
Advocates of a more open trade
group had considered those steps
modest but necessary to gain the
trust of smaller governments, as
well as nongovernment environmental and labor groups.
Even while negotiations continued,
Clinton telephoned world leaders
to try to resolve several of the most
contentious issues. He had long discussions with Prime Minister Keizo
Obuchi of Japan; Romano Prodi,
president of the European Union, and
Ernesto Zedillo, the Mexican president, administration officials said.
Obuchi and Prodi had declined to attend the Seattle meeting.
The administration had seemed to
make some progress, including a reference to eliminating various subsidies in a draft framework for talks
on farm goods.
Europe and Japan, among the
leading users of subsidies to protect
their inefficient farmers from competition, had strongly opposed ending
subsidies, while Australia, Brazil,
Canada and the United States, as
well as several other major agricultural exporters had insisted on working toward ending all subsidies on
But the wording on the draft
framework for farm talks fell well
short of the original American goal,
and negotiators were unable to agree
on a time frame for eliminating subsidies.
The European Union and Japan
also made some progress before the
talks failed, managing to obtain concessions that would have allowed nations to treat agriculture and family
farms as areas needing special protection -- in effect classifying farms
as an environmental resource and a
way of life, not a commodity for
The United States, in its struggle
for an agreement, backed down on a
crucial Japanese demand, that the
trade organization consider ways to
police the use of antidumping rules.
Japan, along with many developing
nations, has criticized how Washington uses laws against dumping to
protect industries, especially the
Administration officials had hoped
a final agreement would contain
some provision for studying and possibly amending rules governing the
use of anti-dumping laws. They said
that concession was meant to persuade Japan to back the United
States on several other issues.
The most important area on which
the United States sought Japan's
support was labor rights. The administration, under heavy pressure from
American unions, spent its political
capital at the talks in seeking support for banning child labor and setting standards for treatment of
Advancing demands from the
A.F.L.-C.I.O., the administration had
pushed to establish a permanent internal group to recommend how to
use trade rules to enforce labor
rights guaranteed in international
treaties like the right to unionize.
But developing countries, led by
Egypt and India, battled the American proposal, insisting that workers'
rights should in no way be linked to
trade. Those nations believe that
even studying such ties could lead to
developed countries' imposing sanctions on poor ones found to violate
Some countries feared that the issue would have given an unwanted
entry to Western countries eager to
impose their ideals of human rights
on less-developed countries.
American labor leaders had said it
was imperative to link workers'
rights to trade, arguing that global
corporations often set up factories in
countries like China, where independent unions are suppressed, helping to hold down wages.
Thousands of union members traveled here and conducted the largest
of a series of protests against the
Clinton at one point suggested
that the organization should one day
sanction countries that violate internationally accepted labor norms. But
Clinton's use of the word sanctions hardened opposition, despite a
frenzied administration effort to
play down the president's remarks.
By Friday morning, American negotiators conceded that they had lost the
campaign to form a new working
group on labor in the W.T.O., essentially sacrificing their highest-profile
goal for this round of talks.
"It became clear from the president language that the initiative put
forward by the administration was
something far more pervasive," said
Watson, the trade expert. "That
made the U.S. very isolated on that
proposal and forced them to depart
from their original objectives."