Police in Switzerland had to break up a violent rally last weekend when anti-globalization protestors burned cars and smashed windows to express their objections to the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting.
These acts of hooliganism are appalling--but they’re also nothing like what I witnessed a decade ago, when agitators disrupted the WTO’s 1999 meetings in what some people now call “the Battle in Seattle.”
It seemed as though the WTO wanted to stay out of the news this week--and it mostly succeeded.
I would have welcomed a positive headline, such as one announcing a breakthrough in the long-running Doha negotiations, which hold the potential to increase global prosperity. Yet we knew ahead of time that a surprise success wasn’t going to happen. “It is simply not ripe for this kind of thing,” warned WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy. The meetings were billed as a “housekeeping” session that would focus on other issues, such as dispute settlement.
Perhaps no news is good news. The news in Geneva very easily could have been bad, if only because that’s what the media loves to report. For the WTO’s first ministerial conference in four years, part of me is just glad negotiators were able to get together for dinner without any reality-television wannabes crashing the party.
Party crashing may be a fluke at the White House, but there’s a sad history of it at the WTO.
In Seattle, I was present at the destruction. The protestors numbered about 45,000. Many of them looked young, like high-school or college students. They weren’t trying to make a serious point about politics or economics. They were cutting class and searching for fun, under the disturbing spell of mob psychology. According to one estimate, their violent antics cost local businesses $20 million in damage.
Even more puzzling, in its way, was the behavior of longshoremen. Their unions paid them to show up and protest the WTO talks. Without global trade, of course, many in their ranks wouldn’t even have jobs. I tried to discuss this with a few of them, but they failed to make the vital connection between trade policies and their employment.
After Seattle, the WTO held its next ministerial meeting in Doha--and launched what is now known as its Doha round of talks. These began in 2001 and were supposed to finish by 2005. Yet they continue to drag on, with no apparent end in sight. Their successful completion would deliver a good jolt to the world economy, which sure could use it.
Protesters continue to show up at WTO meetings, but they are a nuisance rather than a danger. Inertia on the part of countries that should be leading the organization is a more significant threat.
This has been a tough year for trade. For the 12 months that ended in September, the international exchange of goods and services dropped by more than 14 percent from a year earlier, reports the New York Times. Trade has started to tick upward again, but it remains well below where it stood before the financial crisis.
Many countries have returned to protectionism. Argentina and Russia are probably the worst abusers, though plenty of other nations have contributed to this harmful trend. The United States introduced “buy American” requirements in the stimulus bill. More recently, the Obama administration imposed special duties on low-cost tires made in China. Neither should have been done.
The completion of the Doha round would help to reverse course and also improve business confidence around the world. But if this isn’t possible, it may be time to consider next-best alternatives. The International Food & Agricultural Trade Policy Council has called for finishing the Doha round, but it also has released an extensive report on the pros and cons of other options, such as bilateral accords, regional deals, and industry-specific agreements. These options are worth careful study.
Ten years ago, Seattle’s protestors stole the headlines. Today, the WTO is out of the headlines almost entirely. When trade flows smoothly, that can be a good thing. Right now, it would be nice to see the WTO in the news for making progress.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. Mr. Kleckner was the only farmer to serve on the U.S. Advisory Team during the GATT Uruguay Round of World trade talks. www.truthabouttrade.org