By Andrew Marshall in Seattle
The World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle descended into near chaos yesterday. Delegates from around the world loudly condemned America's handling of the conference and the chances of any substantial agreement all but evaporated.
What had been intended as a political triumph for Bill Clinton threatens to become a serious blow to his domestic and international credibility. Many, including some of his own negotiators, blamed the President's mid-week intervention for seriously damaging the prospects of agreement.
Mr Clinton called for new rules in world trade to penalise countries that did not adhere to Western labour standards. A labour agreement was a key US demand but, by raising the profile of sanctions, Mr Clinton outraged many developing countries who were already hostile to the idea. Many were furious after the extensive demonstrations which disrupted the meeting and, as the hours ticked away, tempers were lost.
British and European officials last night accused the Americans of incompetence and disorganisation. Delegates had openly booed Charlene Barshefsky, the US Trade Representative, and Mike Moore, the director general of the WTO, on Thursday night.
African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American delegates were furious at being left out of key meetings and decisions and some refused to sign any deal. The US tried to push ahead with meeting on labour standards against resistance from some delegations, which Pakistan said was illegal. A counter-meeting was set up but the Americans took away translators and microphones.
High stakes negotiations often involve tension, but never this degree of rancour and open anger. In any case, this meeting was only supposed to be the beginning of negotiations. Taken alongside the demonstrations earlier in the week, the meeting ranks as the worst-handled international event in a long time.
Ms Barshefsky's deadline for agreement approached with little sign of a deal, and European and British sources said that a bare-bones agreement might have to suffice. Instead of spelling out how the WTO would handle the trade talks, it would simply list areas of discussion. That would represent all but total failure when set against US aspirations, and mean that last year's work and the negotiations of the last week were essentially wasted.
To add to American embarrassment, the deal on labour standards was close, but it was not part of the official agreement and was of very dubious legal value. It set up a body that was not part of the WTO and did not change its rules in any way. That represented a comprehensive defeat for America if agreed, though the US was expected to present it as a substantive success.
This was the most crucial issue for the US government, facing demonstrations by trade unions outside, pressure inside from John Sweeney, the head of the AFL-CIO, (American's umbrella union body), an election in a year's time and deep divisions in the Democratic Party. So in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mr Clinton said the US wanted sanctions; and in speeches, he seemed more concerned to express his sympathies with the demonstrators.
To add to the fiasco, demonstrators infiltrated themselves into the WTO building and disrupted the press room, shouting and putting up banners. After some minutes they were ejected by stunned security staff. Many non-journalists have been accredited for the meeting, and in any case, several passes were stolen. The security of the meeting has become highly controversial in Seattle after the police failed to deal with the early protests, clamped down very tightly during Mr Clinton's visit and then relaxed their grip again.
The more significant problems were not those between developed countries: they were those which divided the North and the South. And here, the atmosphere was becoming poisonous. The US had promised to make this round of talks a "development round", and pledged greater openness to the poor nations. Instead, they ended up feeling marginalised and insulted. One pregnant Colombian delegate was knocked to the ground in the mêlée on Tuesday; an African delegate was refused entry to the conference.
Even if the summit does succeed in setting a course for three years of negotiations on a new world trade pact, it is clear that the WTO has been gravely wounded by the week, and American credibility on trade issues further undermined abroad.