December 4, 1999
NEWS ANALYSIS / THE SHIPWRECK IN SEATTLE
White House Miscalculation Led to Talks Without a Focus
The Overview: Seattle Talks on Trade End With Stinging Blow to U.S.
By DAVID E. SANGER
EATTLE -- In the end,
there were no victors in the globalization battle of Seattle. Everyone
just went home angry.
As the negotiations to rewrite the
rules of world trade for a
new millennium collapsed in bitterness and
discord this week, President Clinton's economic
team belatedly realized the magnitude of their miscalculation about
how the Seattle talks would turn out.
They boarded planes to Washington Saturday morning fuming at nearly
everyone: at developing countries
like India and Brazil and Egypt that
refused even to discuss workers'
rights as part of the negotiations; at
old allies in Europe and Japan that
dug in their heels on long-running
trade disputes over agriculture and
steel; at Seattle's police for, in their
view, wildly mishandling the chaos
on the streets.
Ministers from developing nations
were equally angry -- at the United
States. Once again, they said, Washington had tried to use its enormous
economic power to benefit Amazon.com and Boeing and the United
Steelworkers, at the expense of
And while environmental activists
and labor rights groups briefly exulted that their "Stop the W.T.O."
marches had helped do exactly that,
they are likely to be angry again, too.
The ferocity of the arguments here
-- both in the street and in the conference rooms -- made it abundantly
clear that it would be a long time
before the trade group would be empowered to impose trade sanctions
against countries that allow children
to work in factories, that do not protect sea turtles from fishing nets, or
that clear-cut virgin forests.
Perhaps the angriest of all were
Seattle's merchants and businesses,
who had spent $9 million to draw the
meeting of 135 nations here and will
spend far more cleaning up from the
resulting rioting and lost sales. In the
end the city's embattled mayor told
the White House that if it really
wanted to help Seattle, it would close
down the conference and get out of
All that anger raised an obvious
question: why was everyone here to
The administration chose a spectacularly bad moment to pick this
particular fight. With the exception
of agriculture, few American industries have a clear agenda for trade
talks now, and many no longer believe that these long, endless
"rounds" of negotiations are useful
anymore. They involve too many
countries, rich and poor, with radically different interests. In an age of
e-mail, they move like an aging cargo ship. The co-chairman of the Seattle host committee for the talks,
Bill Gates, barely even showed up --
and his office is only 12 miles away.
Big industrial nations, particularly
Japan and those in Europe, suffer
from market-opening fatigue; they
have had about as much as their
political systems can take.
"There was no consensus about
the need for further liberalization,"
said Ira Shapiro, the former general
counsel of the United States trade
representative's office, who joined
the hundreds of lawyers, corporate
executives and legislators who
worked the fringes of the negotiations. "The only thing that unified
most of the people here was a sense
of grievance that they were being
treated unfairly by the global trading
But it went ahead, in part because
Clinton was convinced that he
had one last free-trade victory left.
He has never been in accord with
labor unions or his own party on
trade, and he thought he could convince labor leaders and environmentalists that they could gradually
change the priorities of the global
economy to their liking.
The new global economy is a reality, he argued, so rather than fight it
they would be wise to try to shape it,
making environmental standards
and workers' rights part of every
future trade agreement. But after
many disappointments, they doubted
his sincerity, and saw ploys to rekindle support for Vice President Al
Clinton also believed he could
persuade poor or weaker nations
that they could cut pollution and
raise working standards without
wiping out their low-cost competitive
"I do not believe the United States
has the right to ask India or Pakistan
or China or any other country to give
up economic growth," Clinton
said here on Wednesday. "But we do
have a right to say we will help you
finance a different path to growth"
while putting environment and labor
issues "at the core of our trade concerns."
He won over almost no one. Many
nations suspected a plot to use higher
labor and environmental standards
to keep out their products, or at least
to level the playing field by raising
the costs of production in developing
And the noisy protests only hardened such views. As a result, Seattle
will be remembered not for the new
ground that was broken, but for the
windows that were shattered. It will
be the place where protesters,
marching down Seattle's streets at a
time of unmatched prosperity for
America, argued that free trade
benefits the world's largest corporations but does little for the poorest
nations, the most exploited workers
and the environment.
What did the protesters want?
Many were not sure. Their signs
called for elimination of the trade
organization. But the environmental
and labor groups actually wanted a
stronger institution, one that could
enforce rulings that China was illegally barring unions or India was
dumping too many pollutants into its
rivers. Violators could face economic
And that suggestion, uttered by
President Clinton himself in a moment of candor his aides regretted,
provoked smaller and poorer nations
into open rebellion.
They envisioned an ever-more-powerful, American-dominated
trade organization that would begin
dictating how much they paid their
workers, or what kind of fuels they
could burn, or what kind of magazines and films they had to let into
the country. And after all, they said,
which country brings the most trade
complaints before the court of the
World Trade Organization? The
United States, of course.
sense you want to rig the system," a
Japanese diplomat here said.
Some of Clinton's advisers had
warned him that he was asking for
more than most countries would accept. Clinton's former international economic adviser, Daniel Tarullo, published an article last month
arguing for "a modest trade agenda" at Seattle, and said that a formal
"round" of negotiations "should
probably not be held." They get too
broad, too complex, too political.
Questions of labor rights and safety go to the core of any country's
political system, Tarullo said.
"The real danger," he warned, is
that the global trading system is
becoming "identified with restricting the authority of governments to
protect health, workers, environment and consumers." Or, he might
have added, requiring them to impose such regulations.
Those issues sank the Seattle talks.
"They are much more politically
charged now than they were a week
ago." Tarullo said. And Clinton, 14 months from the end of his
presidency, may have seen the passing of his last chance to make the
mixture of foreign policy and foreign
trade one of the bright spots of his