When I was growing up in Seattle many years ago, it was known as the Emerald City, the crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest. Last week, however, Seattle became a chaotic war zone when it was invaded by the World Trade Organization and a motley army of demonstrators, protesters and assorted screwballs.
President Clinton's anticipated global photo-op turned into a public relations nightmare as club-swinging policemen and National Guardsmen battled violent demonstrators, including armed anarchists, in downtown Seattle. It wasn't an uplifting experience for either Seattle or the President. So what was all the fuss about?
The WTO, formed in 1995 as the successor organization to the old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), is a coalition of 135 governments that makes the rules governing international trade in an increasingly global economy.
The WTO also functions as a kind of international trade court, making binding rulings when member states are in dispute. For example, when European governments tried to stop importing hormone-treated beef from the U.S. on health grounds, they were overruled by the WTO.
The WTO has four major objectives: (1) to ensure that all members benefit from the same trading rights, (2) to support free trade and the reduction and eventual elimination of trade barriers, (3) to establish binding rules to ensure fairness and consistency in international trade and (4) to eliminate government subsidies in order to make world trade more competitive.
Advocates for the WTO and free trade - including President Clinton and all of the serious candidates for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations - argue that expanded international trade has created unprecedented wealth in both rich and some previously poor countries; today's world economy is six times larger than it was 50 years ago, mostly due to a tenfold increase in international trade.
Critics of the WTO, including labor unions and Reform Party presidential contender Pat Buchanan, raise concerns about child labor, democracy, labor rights and the environment. They also reject the idea of a non-elected world organization with the power to overrule elected governments on such issues.
Although some Seattle protesters demonstrated against the pervasive international influence of American pop culture, I'm more concerned about foreign invasions by Pokemon cards from Japan and Britain's terminally cute Teletubbies, which have enslaved the entire child population of America.
Because of strong feelings for and against the WTO, it was inevitable that there would be conflict in Seattle. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman analyzed the conflict in a column titled "Senseless in Seattle." "These anti-WTO protesters - who are a Noah's Ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix - are protesting against the wrong target with the wrong tools," he wrote. "What unites the anti-WTO crowd is their realization that we now live in a world without walls ... (where) jobs, cultures, environmental problems and labor standards can much more easily flow back and forth (between nations). The ridiculous thing about the protesters is that they find fault with this, and blame the WTO."
In other words, in order to save the environment and American jobs, the protesters want the WTO to become precisely what they accuse it of being - a global government, which it's not.
Friedman wrote that the protesters can achieve their objectives "not by adopting 1960s tactics in a Web-based world" but by "mobilizing the power of trade, the power of the Internet and the power of consumers to persuade, or embarrass, multinational corporations and nations to upgrade their (labor and environmental) standards."
President Clinton recognized the wisdom of Friedman's advice when he invited peaceful protestors to participate in the long-term debate over the new rules of world commerce. But, he added, "To those who came here (to Seattle) to break windows and hurt small businesses, or stop people from going to meetings or having their say, I condemn them." Me too, because the lawbreakers cost downtown businesses $7 million in lost sales on top of $2 million worth of property damage.
I agree with the protestors on one issue, though - the inclusion of China in the WTO. China has done nothing to earn the right to trade with the democracies of the world on an equal basis, unless you think locking up dissidents and stealing U.S. missile technology are achievements for which China's Communist dictators should be rewarded.
As economist Greg Mastel wrote in the Weekly Standard, "Whether China's accession (to the WTO) is ultimately in the best interest of the United States will depend on whether China can be made to live by the rules of the WTO.... This will require a more hard-headed view of China than the Clinton administration has shown."
When it comes to China, the Clinton administration has always placed trade above human rights, and appeased China at every turn. "This (WTO) agreement will strengthen the rule of law in China," said U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky.
But, as the Washington Post noted recently, "China has frequently flouted the international agreements it has signed" by persecuting peaceful religious and political dissenters.
If those violent anti-WTO protestors had appeared in Beijing, they would have had more than tear gas to contend with. They would have faced the same Red Army tanks that killed hundreds of student protestors in Tiananmen Square 10 years ago.
So while Seattle became a playpen for vandals, Beijing would have been a killing field. And that's why we can't treat brutal dictatorships like everyone else in the WTO or any other international organization.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.