THE BIG, BAD World Trade Organization we've been hearing so much about came to town October 1. As embodied by the organization's brand new director general Mike Moore, the WTO didn't seem all that scary. It's hard not to feel sympathy for an ex-prime minister trying to keep his temper while being hung out like a pi� for smart-ass UW students to whack at.
Which may well have been the whole point of Moore's whirlwind 14-hour visit to Seattle just two months before the trade honchos of 134 sovereign nations and their side-men converge on the city for the biennial round of back-slapping (and -stabbing) known as the WTO Ministerial Conference. If the man the Economist touts as "the human face of globalization" is a balding, rubicund fireplug with a thick, down-under working-class accent who looks like he'd be more comfortable in coveralls than diplomatic pinstripes, maybe the Geneva-based organization he heads up isn't part of the plot by rapacious multinationals to rule the world that protesters here and abroad see it as.
Maybe. The real irony of the situation, though, may be that the WTO is secretly grateful for every bit of vociferous opposition its opponents can muster and disappointed that only a few dozen chanting picketers were mustered outside the Bell Harbor Conference Center on Alaskan Way to heckle him when he arrived. The more vigorous the opposition to it, the more powerful and decisive the WTO appears. And right now, the WTO needs all the street cred it can get.
Despite its global title, the WTO is a new kid on the international block, having been brought into being less than five years ago as a successor to GATT—the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade—which had governed international traffic in goods since 1947. GATT was explicitly conceived—by the great economic theorist John Maynard Keynes among others—as a mechanism to break down the high tariff walls between nations. Keynes believed tariffs helped bring on the great depression of the 1930s and that eliminating them would ensure something similar didn't happen again.
It was an agonizingly slow process, but after 46 years of desultory whacking away, tariff barriers had been brought down far enough that free-trade advocates felt ready to take on other, equally important restraints on international commerce: import quotas and import licenses, farm subsidies and export subsidies, rules against foreign ownership of domestic assets, discrimination against foreign labor, currency controls, you name it. GATT wasn't geared to deal with such issues, so in December 1993 its members phased it out in favor of a new structure with a new set of rules which they believed—perhaps optimistically—could: the WTO.
The big difference between GATT and the WTO is that in order to take part, a government has to agree to abide by certain general rules, and any member who feels that the actions of another violate one of those rules can ask for an independent panel of experts to look into the situation and decide who's in the right.
Sounds good in theory, right? The reality is something else. The WTO's members are independent, sovereign states. And they don't make decisions by majority vote: Only after consensus among member states is reached—on anything from tariffs on tropical fruits to protecting Mickey Mouse from trademark infringement—does the WTO issue one of its rules, often as laced with loopholes and escape clauses demanded by special interests great and small as a Senate appropriation bill. The Geneva-based "secretariat" Moore heads has no power, no freedom of action, and vestigial underwriting from the membership (around $75 million a year, less than the City of Seattle lumps together as "miscellaneous income" in its annual budget.) Compared to heavy hitters like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization is the Wizard of Oz: powerful and impressive just so long as you don't look behind the screen.
WHY WOULD ANYBODY want the top job in such a smoke-and-mirrors operation? In Moore's case, the answer's easy. Back home in New Zealand, his political career is at a dead end. A member of the Labour government that helped demolish most of his isolated country's trade barriers in just six years, Moore (and his party) got the boot from the voters in 1990 and has been looking for new worlds to conquer ever since. Nobody questions Moore's evangelistic passion for open trade, but he also needed a job, preferably one which would feed his taste for first-class jet travel and five-star hotels acquired during six years as New Zealand's minister of overseas trade. And though the directorship of the WTO may be devoid of power, it's a bully pulpit to preach from.
More interesting than Moore's reasons for wanting the job are his backers' reasons for wanting him in it. Before he got into the race to replace Italy's Renato Ruggiero, a Thai named Supachai Panitchpakdi looked like a shoo-in. Supachai was uncontroversial, a professional economist, and, most important of all, he came from the right part of the world: After decades of leadership by North Americans and Europeans, Asian and third world countries wanted one of their own.
For reasons that are still obscure, however, the United States balked. Moore, from a small country you could mistake in a dim light for third world, had the dual qualification of being a rabid free-trader and an ex-working stiff, thereby making him acceptable to both the Clinton White House and the AFL-CIO. The US is used to getting its way in international affairs, and it ultimately did this time, too, though only by agreeing with Supachai's backers that their man would take over the director general job halfway through its supposed six-year term.
The Asian financial crisis of late '98 complicated the battle for the job, which dragged on so long that the secretariat in Geneva is far behind on whipping the more than 140 new discussion topics proposed by members into a semblance of an agenda for "the Seattle round," not to mention the issues inherited still unresolved and smoldering from the last two ministerials in Singapore and Geneva.
A number of important members—India among them—question whether the international trade negotiation system can handle any more issues than it's already got on its plate. Malaysia has openly called for a minimum one-year moratorium on new talks, to give members time to assess the impact of measures already agreed to. They would rather spend the time in Seattle chatting about the developed world's failure to hold itself to the same standard of "fairness" it insists on for other: the US failure, for instance, to open its markets to Indian textiles, South African steel, Caribbean sugar.
The problem is, that is not what the United States government wants to do. The US government wants to see "progress," by which it means new binding rules about fair labor practices (to appease American organized labor) and intellectual property (to appease Disney and Microsoft) and agricultural exports (to please the farm lobby and Archer Daniels Midland) and rain forest preservation (to please the Sierra Club).
The US will probably get its way. After all, it put its man Mike Moore in the WTO's top job in the teeth of opposition from a majority of members. But the Seattle Ministerial may still produce some surprises. Moore's down-home manner and down-under accent may convince a lot of American TV watchers that he's the friend of the world's underprivileged. But the scruffy rowdies who plan to take to Seattle's streets on November 30 think they know better. And this time out they may find some unexpected allies among the pinstriped suits and homburgs inside the hall.