Mistaken identities

We have met the World Trade Order, and it isn't us.

EVEN IF YOU WERE LUCKY enough to get a cab from the downtown "security zone" after last Tuesday's upheavals, you couldn't get away from the WTO. When the cabbie learned what I'd been doing—loitering with intent to take notes—he detained me for a 15-minute oration on the shutdown of the steel mills in his hometown, the fact that he had to drive a cab now, and the raw deal that people like him generally got, all tied into "this World Trade Order."

The World Trade Order. The cabbie had unwittingly disclosed the underlying and unifying theme to all the storm and fury that swirled around the World Trade Organization's sojourn in Seattle: mistaken identity. Everywhere across the city, from the conference halls where delegates dickered to the auditoriums where activists roused the crowds to the sidewalks where gas splashed and vandals smashed, all the players in the Millennium Round/Battle of Seattle played the same game: misreading the enemy, magnifying their fears, and neglecting real perils.

Consider first the outer battle, the street ruckus that the whole world was watching and for which it will remember Seattle. A new Seattle mascot has replaced the salmon and Sasquatch in the wider world's eyes: the black-garbed, black-masked smash-and-dash "anarchist." The stinger is that this evasive wrecking crew was hardly Seattleite at all but an import from Eugene, traveling the same I-5 corridor that brought us Crips, Bloods, and Ken Behring.

City officials showed a naivet頴hat now seems a touching artifact of another, more sheltered Seattle. They misgauged the threat downtown, first underpreparing and then, as a result, overreacting. The police, caught short and in the middle, mistook the dangers again and again. They tried to block the mom-and-apple-pie union march and Jubilee hand-holding, deployed in military fashion against nonviolent street-blockers, and chased, cuffed, and sprayed passersby on Broadway—while anarchists and other thugs trashed at will behind the lines.

The protests drew strange bedfellows: colorful Korean dancers, the stars of the Tuesday protests, who were actually defending subsidized, overbuilt, ocean-ravaging fishing fleets, and Vietnamese anticommunists marching with the unions and waving the flag of the old union-repressing South Vietnamese regime.

Amidst all the rampaging, the world barely noted the most epochal and inspiring event of the week: the 35,000-strong labor march of the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO. Anti-trade sentiment drowned out fair-trade arguments. One crowd-pleasing speaker urged "self-sufficiency" as the cure for exploitation (though none cited self-sufficient North Korea, Maoist China, or Stalinist Russia as model). At one preconference trade symposium, an earnest British panelist bemoaned "ruthless competition" and contended "that exports should play a relatively small part in rebuilding local economies." Whoa, interjected Ghana's Tetteh Hormeku, a delegate for the Third World Network: "Trade is an essential part of economies that don't all have the same resources. The problem in Africa is not trade itself, but the terms of trade which have been forced on us." Colonialism was the original protectionism, squelching Africa's indigenous free trade. "A lot of people here in the northern countries see village life in Africa and think that's just the way things should stay." In Ghana, Bolivia, or Bangladesh, that view seems as presumptuous as Clinton's urging labor-standard sanctions. As Hormeku noted, "We like telephones, too."

THE WTO OPPONENTS' biggest misapprehension—ringing from the streets and the lecterns—is to inflate this underfunded and, as the conference's collapse showed, deeply divided and vulnerable trade-standardization body into what the charismatic Canadian activist Maude Barlow called "the most powerful institution on earth." Or, as a "primer" from the International Forum on Globalization puts it, an invisible "global government for the new millennium."

Such rhetoric eerily echoes the paranoid right's long crusade against United Nations "world government"; next, black helicopters full of sweatshop imports will be staging at secret warehouses in the Nevada desert. It's a bizarre turnabout to see the left rise up to defend "national sovereignty" and resist monolithic globalism. But it's a natural (and, as last week's mobilization showed, highly effective) reaction to complex changes. Trade in goods, the most tangible form of exchange, stands in for the murkier (and more dangerous) globalization of capital and culture.

After endlessly tilting at dreary issues, struggling to stir interest in global warming, lost biodiversity, sweatshop exploitation, and [your cause here], activists finally find a focus, target, and villain in the WTO. It's the perfect scapegoat, at once vague and imminent, for our darkest fears: Mickey Mouse, Mickey D's, Microsoft, the IMF, and the CIA all rolled into one—a Trilateral Commission for the left. But it's only the instrument, not the musician, and fixating on it distracts from the real players.

THE CRACKS IN monolithic tradism gaped for all to see on Friday, when WTO members bagged out without even setting a minimal agenda for future talks. The curtain fell with a consummately ironic close, echoing the tumult in the streets and recapitulating the manifold contradictions of the WTO effort: a final protest that escaped the press reports, in spite—or perhaps because—of the fact that journalists themselves were the protesters.

As midnight approached and the delegates streamed from the Convention Center, America's chief trade negotiator, Charlene Barshefsky, and hand-picked WTO director general, Mike Moore, were to hold a final press conference—presumably in the usual place, the vast top-floor hall. Then word leaked that they'd use a much smaller temporary room behind the conference press center. We ink-stained wretches galloped over, packed the corridor, and pushed to get in. The handlers admitted US-accredited journalists and excluded foreign, who kept jostling and chanted "Shame, shame!"—the same chant that had recently filled the streets.

Inside, the first reporter recognized asked, "How can you hold a press conference where hundreds of press are excluded?" Barshefsky and company speedily decamped to the great hall.

Why didn't they do that in the first place? The semi-official explanation was that they wanted to avoid reprising an earlier session that was disrupted by environmental protesters who'd snuck in under press credentials. But why favor American journalists over others? This reopened all the festering complaints against the conference itself: that it was badly mismanaged; that it was undemocratic even by WTO standards, with select nations doing the real business in closed "green room" meetings; that the United States was again riding roughshod over everyone else.

One WTO official suggests that the conference died from bureaucratic overload, not protests or irreconcilable differences: Barshefsky couldn't both host it and steer the US agenda. It's hard to have fun or restructure the world trading system at your own party. The Clinton Administration has as much reason as Schell's to regret hosting this show.

When the press conference reconvened with room for everyone, a Swiss journalist showed why the US hosts might not crave to meet the whole world's press. He aired the persistent speculation that Clinton scuttled a WTO agreement to throw a political sop to American unions and environmentalist: "Some in the EU delegation say [the conference's] failure was not accidental. . . . Was failure a political option for the US, a price you're willing to pay to make sure Al Gore gets his election?"

Barshefsky huffed at the "outrageousness of the question" and insisted, "There has never been any question of the United States' commitment nor any waning of the United States intention to launch a new global round." And so America, the prime mover of globalization and liberalization was left pleading that it really was for free trade after all. Some World Trade Order.

 
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