Last Stop for Corporate Globalization: Seattle '99
By Mark Weisbrot
It's being billed in advance as the "protest of the century." A thousand
(NGOs), and tens of thousands of people are expected to demonstrate their opposition to the World
Trade Organization in Seattle beginning November 29.
How did something as arid and seemingly removed from people's lives as "the Third Ministerial Meeting
of the World Trade Organization" manage to attract this kind of opposition?
The wrong place at the wrong time
Most of America slept right through the birth of this 134-nation organization five
years ago-- including
many in Congress who voted to ratify US membership. In the fall of 1994 Ralph Nader's Public Citizen
offered $10,000 to any member of Congress that would read the 500-page treaty and answer ten
simple questions to prove it. Senator Hank Brown of Colorado, a Republican who had voted for NAFTA
and planned to vote for the WTO, took the bet. He passed the quiz with a perfect score, collected the
winnings (for a charity of his choice), and then proceeded to announce that having read the agreement,
he felt compelled to vote against it.
It passed anyway, but if it were up for a vote today it would probably lose. Why the fuss? To be sure,
the WTO wields considerably less power in the international economy than other, similar institutions in
which our government plays the leading role. The International Monetary Fund and its sister institution,
the World Bank, for example, probably do more damage to humanity and our natural environment in a
typical month than the WTO has done since it set up shop.
But the WTO is meeting in the wrong place at the wrong time. The US public has grown increasingly
tired and suspicious of the whole process of "corporate globalization," in which the ability of
multinational corporations to profit from expanding trade and commerce is assumed to be identical with
the public interest.
The protectionist WTO
It is important to realize that the argument here is not "free trade vs.
protectionism," as it is often
framed by proponents of corporate globalization looking for a straw man to beat up on. The WTO is
quite protectionist, and no friend of free markets, when it comes to the "intellectual property rights" --
patents, copyrights, and other monopolies created for the benefit of major corporations.
Of course it is true that the monopoly profits received, for example, by pharmaceutical companies with
patented drugs, are sometimes used to finance further research and development. But this is not
necessarily the most efficient or effective means of financing the necessary research, and laws which
balance competing interests on this issue vary greatly from country to country. Yet the WTO has
adopted as its mission to protect and expand these monopolies for multinational corporations.
So the real debate is not about protectionism, but rather who will be protected from the ravages of
unrestrained competition. For the WTO, it is certainly not employees or the poor. The organization has
no rules for the benefit of those who labor. Without any such standards, as the public has become
increasingly aware, the majority of people can actually lose from expanding trade. The rapid expansion
of our trade with Mexico over the last two decades, for example, has actually left workers on both
sides of the border with a lower real wage than they had in the 1970s.
Nor does the environment or public safety merit protection from the WTO. In every case brought to the
organization that challenged environmental or public safety legislation, the challengers won. When
foreign commercial shrimp fishing interests challenged the protection of giant sea turtles in our
endangered species act, the poor turtles-- who have glided through the Earth's oceans for 150 million
years-- didn't stand a chance.
When it was Venezuelan oil interests versus the US Environmental Protection Agency's air quality
standards for imported gasoline, the oil interests won. When it was US cattle producers against the
European Union's ban on hormone-treated beef, European consumers lost.
The list goes on-- and it would get a lot longer if the Clinton administration were to have its way in
Seattle. One of the top items on their agenda is the much-dreaded "Global Free Logging Agreement,"
which would lead to increased unsustainable logging worldwide and threaten a number of initiatives to
protect domestic forests at home.
Last stop: Seattle
These results are hardly surprising, given the way the deck has been stacked. Decisions
are made by
tribunals in which the proceedings are kept secret. The judges tend to represent a narrow range of
opinion on the economic and social issues, and there are no conflict of interest rules that would prevent
them from ruling on a case in which they have a direct financial stake in the outcome.
This is the purpose of the WTO: to avoid the democratic processes and accountability (however
scarce) that exist in the member nations, so that the rules that govern international trade and
commerce can be made by those who run it.
In the latest issue of Business Week, Jeffrey Garten, Dean of the Yale School of Management, warns
that if the NGOs are "are allowed to hijack the WTO talks, it will be a dangerous precedent that every
government and every global company will regret long after the protests in Seattle." But this is just the
kind of precedent that the world needs right now. The opposition is demanding that there be no new
round of negotiations, and it's looking more and more like they are going to win. The Clinton
Administration's offer to establish a "working group" within the WTO to discuss labor rights is too little
and too late. This World Trade Organization is never going to make any rules that would infringe on the
prerogatives of corporations, for the benefit of labor or the environment; it will self-destruct before that
The train of corporate globalization-- with "trade first, people last" as its guiding principle-- has been
headed in the wrong direction for a long time. Before it can turn around, it must be brought to a halt.
Last stop: Seattle 1999.
Mark Weisbrot is Research Director of the Preamble Center, in Washington, D.C.