No halting the trade juggernaut?
Civil unrest in Seattle adds visibility to environmental, labor, and
One of the most spirited civilian protests in the United States since the 1960s has disrupted the global trade talks, turned Seattle into more of an armed camp than a Starbucks Inc., and beamed an antitrade message around the world.
But beneath the tear gas and nightstick imagery lurks a fundamental question: In the end, will any of it make a difference?
The short answer is probably no. The subject of the protesters' displeasure, the World Trade Organization, will continue to meet through the week to set a trade-liberalization agenda for the next millennium.
Congress, which had about 91 members here for the WTO talks, will still take up - and probably pass -trade legislation, including the controversial admission of China into the WTO. Nor are there many indications that the Seattle civil disobedience is going to spread, other than a protest in London Tuesday.
The long-term answer is probably no as well. In some ways, the protests represent the strongest grass-roots opposition yet to the general idea of globalization and free trade - a concept that is endorsed by many of America's political leaders, including most of the 2000 presidential candidates.
Even so, the demonstrations force the question: Do the protesters, who are worried about increased globalization, the environment, and labor issues, have anything to add to the debate?
President Clinton, among others, says their voices should be heard. "It was unrealistic to assume that for the next 50 years, trade could be like it's been for the last 50 - primarily the province of business executives and political leaders," he said before traveling to Seattle yesterday. "I think more people are going to demand to be heard, and I think it's a good thing."
If not Seattle, where?
The commotion has raised questions about whether Seattle was the best place to hold the meeting. Former US Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter says it was the wrong choice because it is easy to get to.
Indeed, activists and other demonstrators came to Seattle from all over the Pacific Northwest. They kept the WTO from its formal opening ceremony, but the delegates started negotiations in earnest on Tuesday afternoon.
Jerry Jasinowski, head of the National Association of Manufacturers, says the 135 countries are making good progress toward coming up with an agenda. The main hold-up remains agriculture.
Observers outside Seattle say they don't believe the protests will spread across the US. John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, says the heartland, for one, has few grievances to share with protesters.
"The desire for free and open trade is pretty strong in Nebraska, where we would like to sell more of our agricultural products abroad," he says.
Yet Sen. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri, who caught a whiff of the tear gas in Seattle, says it's not clear yet what impact the media coverage will have.
"There may be others, but quite frankly, it's a free country. Let them get out if they want to," says Senator Bond, who was in Seattle to press for no WTO restraints on biotechnology.
Other lawmakers, however, have been less than impressed by the protesters and their arguments. "They see this as a party," says Rep. David Drier (R) of California, who said he went out to talk to some of the protesters. "Not that there is not a level of intensity, but by and large, people don't understand the benefits of global trade."
On Tuesday, when tear-gas canisters and pepper spray were landing among protesters, Rep. Jim Moran (D) of Virginia was only a short distance away talking about trade legislation.
He was also unmoved by the demonstrators. "Allegations that trade is going to lead to neglect of the environment and worse conditions for workers around the world - we don't buy into that," says Mr. Moran, who funded his initial campaign for Congress with union dollars.
Still, there are those who think the protesters - most of whom were peaceful - will invigorate the debate. Says former Rep. Don Bonker: "This is democracy in action. When the protesters want to make a statement, they hit the streets. When the business community wants to make a statement, they have a meeting."
The protests in Seattle should force lawmakers to look more closely at the issues, say some experts. "Their agenda is perfectly clear: to argue that labor standards and the environment is as relevant as intellectual property," says Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution senior fellow.
"In the broader context, globalization and trade increases economic wealth but can be disruptive because it creates winners and losers," he says. "We have to find a way to deal with the losers."
The Seattle ruckus is not likely to prevent Congress from passing WTO legislation. In addition to bringing China into the WTO, Congress will also likely take up the issue of reauthorizing US involvement with the WTO.
Moran estimates that 80 to 90 Democrats will vote with the Republicans for the legislation. And Mr. Drier, the chairman of the effort to pass the legislation, says it will pass around midyear.
On the Senate side, Bond says the legislation will pass as well. "We have a lot of areas where we [and China] disagree, such as their suppression of religious liberty and their denial of human rights," he says, but adds, "taking them into the WTO is step toward solving those problems."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society