Seattle and the WTO

The media called it “the battle of Seattle” last week.

Certainly it was clear once again that the media often waits for street demonstrations before conveying the message of the demonstrators — in this case composed of labor, church groups, environmental and consumer organizations, family farm delegations, human rights advocates, students against overseas sweat-shops and other never before so united behind a common cause.

President Bill Clinton also read the political and civic strength behind the demonstrators and their intense workshops and press briefings during that exciting week.
After ignoring the articulate pleas of these groups back in 1994 when he was ramming the latest revision of the GATT trade agreement and its World Trade Organization (WTO) through Congress, Mr. Clinton started repeating their concerns. He came out for openness, instead of the secrecy of the WTO that he pushed through Congress. He came out for more openness, instead of the secrecy of the WTO that he pushed through Congress. He came out for more consideration of labor and environmental rights by the WTO, after brushing them off five years ago.

Finally, after condemning some window-smashers, he praised overwhelmingly peaceful marchers and activists for compelling the world’s nations to consider whether they are going in “the direction we all want to go.”

Well, well, well, Mr. Clinton — a WTO reborner! What’s that old saying about “when the people lead, the leaders will follow!” Even right-wing columnist, Bill Safire, writing in the New York Times said it “was Clinton’s finest hour.” Safire noted that trade should be about more than money. Other values counted. Other conservatives agreed and marched along with liberal groups in Seattle.

Seattle was a fork in the road, and as Yogi Berra once said: “When you reach a fork in the road, take it.” Quo vadis? The global corporatists preach a model of economic growth that restson the flows of trade and finance between nations dominated by the giant multinationals — drugs, tobacco, chemical, oil, nuclear, munitions, biotechnology, autos, textile, banking, insurance and other services.

For third world nations, export-dependent economies become too dependent on international finance and its speculative instability, on non-sustainable or seriously polluting technologies and on cash crops instead of growing food for their own people.

The global corporate model is premised on the concentration of power over markets, governments, mass media, patent monopolies over critical drugs and seeds, the workplace and corporate culture. All these and other power concentrates, homogenize the globe and undermine democratic processes and their benefits.

Far better for countries to focus on building domestic markets through land reform, microcredit for small businesses, use of local materials for housing and renewable energy solar-style. For developing countries, it is far better for bottom-up capital formation to encourage activities that are more job intensive — generating purchasing power — than adopting highly capitalized and chemical plantation type agribusiness with destructive technologies. Just look at American economic history and recall the enormous multiplier effect of growing more food and fiber by small farms following the great Homestead Act of 1863.

Obviously, the domestic markets’ priority requires more democracy while the global corporatist approach is quite congenial with dictatorial regimes.

The very successful financier and civil society supporter, George Soros, wrote that the major threat to democracy in the world today — post-Soviet Union — is what he called “the market fundamentalism” of the multinational corporations.

That “market fundamentalism” dominates the commercial mandates and autocratic procedures of the World Trade Organization. With about 134 countries that are members, the domestic environmental, consumer and workplace health and safety regulations have to prove they are “least trade restrictive.”

What that omnipresent phrase means is that one country ban challenge another country’s safety laws or standards for allegedly obstructing imports. So far these cases brought before the WTO’s secret tribunals in Geneva, Switzerland, usually have been decided against health and safety under the tribunal judges’ yardstick of “trade uber alles.”

When this practice is combined with the harmonization (downward so far) of health and safety standards worldwide, which is WTO’s objective, what country can lead first in safety as the U.S. did in auto crash protection years ago? Now our country’s auto safety officials first go for harmonization meetings under WTO — that are secret — instead of pioneering the lifesaving frontiers for its people first.

On Nov. 20, 1994, New York Times reporter, David Sanger, wrote “Over the past year the Administration tried desperately to keep anyone from noticing GATT.” That arrogance by the Clintonites then presents the President with vast redemptive opportunities now. It is in the hands of the people to show him the way.

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