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by Mark Ritchie,
President, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
The recent World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial talks in Seattle failed largely because the negotiation process was undemocratic. Negotiators from nearly all of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and parts of Asia bitterly condemned the talks as coercive and exclusionary. Accordingly, these representatives of the South would not agree to a new round of talks.
These complaints were not new; in fact, the WTO process has been described as undemocratic for years, both from the "inside" by delegates and from the "outside" by non-governmental advocates. In the past, however, protesting delegations had always been forced by superpower pressures to go along with the prescribed agreement.
...the WTO process has been described as undemocratic for years...
But this time it was different. There was near unanimity between and among the key forces: leading Southern country delegates to the Ministerial and non-governmental representatives inside and outside the meetings. Several Third World delegates confirmed that they found the strength to hold to their positions in part from the powerful, ever-present voice of public protest outside the meeting halls.
These protests included newspaper advertisements opposing expansion of the WTO from groups ranging from the Swiss Parliament to the Humane Society of America. It was the first time, in my memory, when the developing nations stood fast against the trade agenda of the economic superpowers.
The Broader Implications
"WTO Seattle" was, as the papers called it, the first post-modern global gathering—both within and outside the Ministerial. Freed from Cold War-era alliances and constraints, and taking lessons from past trade agreement failures, the nations of the South combined with representatives of civil society to write a new chapter in global governance. The outcome creates the possibility of far-reaching change in the WTO, in the broader Bretton Woods economic system, and in global governance. Civil society has moved to the center stage in these affairs.
Inside the WTO, the old process, whereby the United States and European Union cut a deal and then imposed it on everyone else is, I believe, a thing of the past now. Almost all the member countries, rich and poor, are insisting on a new process—one that is more inclusive and democratic.
If the WTO cannot be changed sufficiently to accommodate these demands from governments and citizens, it will become unmanageable.
At the same time, major changes are needed to include civil society in a formal way in both future ministerial meetings and in the on-going WTO process. If the WTO cannot be changed sufficiently to accommodate these demands from governments and citizens, it will become unmanageable.
In the broader Bretton Woods system there is already an active re-examination of the entire system taking place, with literally hundreds of think tanks and academic institutions working to evolve from the Bretton Woods system of international economic management. This we call the "new architecture" for the global economy. Until now, the WTO has been conspicuously absent from many of these discussions although it is the third leg of this system, along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Wholesale reform or restructuring of the entire system is now much more likely in the aftermath of the WTO's organizational failure in Seattle.
With respect to global governance, I believe that something profound happened in Seattle. The process of re-examining the framework and rationale behind the entire system of global governance has taken a giant leap forward.
First, the need for global cooperation has never been more apparent. Protestors and delegates alike raised an impressive range of issues, nearly all of which will require coordinated action over long distances and democratic global rules and procedures to address. Those raising concerns about the loss of species and biosafety wanted to reinforce the global Convention on Biodiversity. Those concerned with protecting children from employer exploitation or slavery demanded globally effective sanctions.
In some instances, the need was to change existing global rules. An excellent example is the Nobel Prize-winning group, Doctors Without Borders, that led an effective campaign "across borders" to convince delegates to give special global protection to essential medicines from intellectual property rights. The need for coordination and democracy across borders was highlighted over and over throughout the ministerial—both inside and outside.
National governments were able only to defend their national interests and were therefore unwilling and unable to tackle truly global concerns...
Second, we have transformed the "table" of global governance. Civil society has joined national governments and multilateral institutions in a full-scale debate on the shape of global decision-making in the future. In Seattle, the credibility of global institutions, such as the WTO, as managers of global affairs has been deeply damaged. National governments were able only to defend their national interests and were therefore unwilling and unable to tackle truly global concerns, especially in the environmental and human rights arenas. The WTO, itself a reflection of these national governments, was deadlocked by the same limited vision and narrow interests.
A half-century ago, delegates from many nations came to San Francisco to create the United Nations. They engaged in a great debate over the opening language of the founding charter for the UN. Many governments wanted the Charter to declare that "We the governments" of the world were creating the UN. The representatives of civil society present in San Francisco fought for language that declared that "We the people" were creating, legitimizing, and empowering this new global institution.
The same debate over control of global affairs continues today. In Seattle civil society said to itself and to the world that global affairs are much too important to be left up to national governments or global bureaucracies. We have announced that we are ready to engage in a dialogue with others concerned with global governance: governments, businesses, cultural institutions, and social movements. Global governance has been and will be transformed forever. We find this historic breakthrough deeply gratifying and inspiring.
The implication for civil society is enormous. We must find a way to engage governments and others in a dialogue on how we will organize global, long-distance and cross-border affairs. And we must develop the ideas and concepts that can address the problems that led to the collapse of the WTO talks, including ways to construct democratic debate and decision-making at this scale.
The Road From Seattle: Getting Beyond "No"
Most of the civil society advocates gathered in Seattle were united in one demand—opposition to the launching of a new round of trade rule making by the WTO. Almost everyone believed that we needed to take stock of our current situation and to address very serious shortcomings and problems before considering whether and how to proceed. In this objective we were successful. This was, again, a breathtaking victory. For the overall WTO structure, many groups think we must either "fix it" or "nix it" in the coming months.
However, there are key WTO-led negotiations already under way in the areas of agriculture, services, and the patenting of life that will go forward despite the collapse in Seattle. We already know that the talks in these areas will be greatly accelerated in hopes of finding quick agreements to prove that the WTO is not dead or damaged.
...there are key WTO-led negotiations already under way in the areas of agriculture, services, and the patenting of life that will go forward despite the collapse in Seattle.
Particularly in the agricultural area, there is great danger that these new agricultural talks will make matters even worse for farmers and fishers, both in the North and in the South. At the same time, the current WTO rules in agriculture have proven to be disastrous for both producers and consumers. They must be changed.
Before Seattle, we had very little hope of making any changes. After Seattle, the situation has changed completely. If the WTO cannot deliver a successful agricultural negotiation it may, in some respects, be placed on "life support." If the WTO continues to refuse to take our views and concerns into consideration, the outcome will most likely be unsuccessful and threaten the very survival of the WTO.
To test this opportunity we need to move quickly. We need an efficient and inclusive global process over the next months that can hammer out our ideas in three areas.
First, we need to determine areas in which we do not desire any WTO involvement whatsoever. Second, we need to highlight some of the areas of current WTO rules, such as prohibitions against the dumping of agricultural exports, where we want the WTO to start enforcing its own rules. Third, we need to identify key issues on which we want the WTO to take affirmative action. For example, we want the WTO to prohibit the patenting of life and essential drugs.
The victory in Seattle joins the denial of fast track negotiating authority to President Clinton and the suspension of talks on the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) as proof of civil society's ability to block ill-considered initiatives in the global arena. We can say clearly what we do not support, and we can stop some of the worst threats. And we will continue to do so with ever-greater strength.
But Seattle also demonstrated that we are prepared to express our ideas on what is needed in terms of global governance and to engage in constructive dialogue on these ideas with all concerned actors, including governments, religions, cultures, businesses, and other global institutions.
Many of the groups from around the world that came together in Seattle will continue to work together at an even higher degree of cooperation on both WTO issues and on other global concerns. Agreements on specific activities such as the creation of a globally coordinated WTO lobbying operation and plans for regional and global meetings were hammered out. Some progress was made on the mechanics for on-going debate and decision-making, but a lot more work on this is needed.
Seattle will be remembered for a lot of things, including the courage of the mostly young people who stood solidly and steadfastly in the face of a furious assault. My hope is that it will also be remembered as a watershed event—a time and place where "we the people" confronted dysfunctional and oppressive global institutions with new ideas and new energy. I hope I will be able to look back someday soon and say that this Battle in Seattle helped jolt the world onto a new path, one leading towards a just and truly sustainable system of global governance and world peace.