Editor's note: This is a corrected version of this story. An earlier version misidentified former WTO Director-General Mike Moore as being from Australia. He is from New Zealand.
Most of the attention around the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Organization’s fateful meeting in Seattle is focusing on what happened on the streets — the protests, the tear gas, the flash-bangs, the significance of the Battle in Seattle.
The protests played a role, for sure, but the deeper significance of the meeting happened behind the police lines, in the meeting halls and guarded conversations in the hallways by the delegates to the ministerial conference. That’s where I was, covering the WTO from the inside, and it is where, perhaps, the post-war structures of the economy ended, setting the stage for a troubled decade to follow, culminating in the Great Recession.
Too broad a brush? Too sweeping a generalization? Perhaps, but the impact of the meeting in Seattle can still be felt around the world.
President Obama’s recent trip to Asia is a good example. Reports from the APEC Ministerial Meeting said the president had to accept a compromise on a climate change proposal. That’s because of resistance from developing economies like India, Russia, and China. Seattle was the first time that developing countries banded together to oppose the developed economies that had dominated the WTO meetings since the end of World War II.
Obama visited China after the APEC meeting — some said much like a borrower meeting his largest banker. China has purchased more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt, which, even at current low rates, generates $10 billion to $20 billion a year in interest payments to China — enough to pay for both the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the 520 Bridge, including overruns.
On that fateful Saturday night 10 years ago when the ministerial was heading toward its final collapse I heard several times that the U.S., European Union, Japan, Canada, and Australia, or some combination, likely would get together and come up with a compromise that would rescue the meeting at the last moment. That never happened. Instead, toward midnight, Mike Moore, an affable New Zealender who was director-general of the WTO, and Charlene Barshefsky, the U.S. trade representative, finally called a meeting in the main ballroom at the Washington State Trade and Convention Center to announce that efforts to create some sort of compromise had collapsed. The differences were just too great for all 135 countries to agree on a new round of negotiations.
It was a blow for Seattle, the Clinton Administration, world trade, and the economies of the world. Seattle leaders who worked to bring the meeting to the city had hoped for the “Seattle Round” of negotiations to begin, forever planting Seattle in the lexicon of world trade. There had been the Tokyo Round, the Uruguay Round, so why not the Seattle Round? Instead it is remembered for the Battle in Seattle.
President Clinton had hoped the meeting would be a fitting triumph for his administration on trade. Nope. Rather, the WTO was in chaos, and instead of a round of important talks on intellectual property, labor standards, and e-commerce, countries were bitterly blaming each other for the outcome.
I don’t mean to dismiss the impact of what happened in the streets of Seattle that dramatic week. But the collapse of the meeting had more to do with internal problems in the organization than with street protests. Reports from the meeting — when delegates of the world trade group got back to the Geneva headquarters after the collapse of the ministerial in Seattle — said member countries were snapping at each other like vicious raptors. Countries were threatening each other over trade issues. Ambassadors were shouting at each other in the hallways. "Poisonous" was the word used by one observer who was there.
The organization itself was in danger of becoming the dinosaur of globalization, disappearing with only vague theories to explain its sudden demise. Not all agree, of course.
Keith Rockwell, the WTO’s chief spokesman, has a much different view of the impact of Seattle. Rockwell has been at the WTO for more than 20 years, a veteran at trying to put the best face on often difficult and complicated issues. Rockwell disagrees about the significance of events in Seattle, pointing out several other WTO meetings that failed to accomplish goals and the fact that there were violent protests in Geneva 18 months before Seattle. He said the Seattle meeting, taking place in the U.S., attracted a great deal more media.
Rockwell said the Seattle meeting was designed to launch a round, a new series of negotiations, “and people were just not ready to do that. I would include the United States in the group that was not ready to launch the round, by the way. It was a very, very poorly organized event. We did not do a good job of preparing the work for the conference.”
Rockwell recalled that the negotiating text was a nightmare of “brackets,” or segments the WTO members did not agree on and needed to be resolved before a round could start. Another factor was that the WTO was leaderless for months leading up to the Seattle meeting; the members could not agree on a new director-general. “For four crucial months, we had no DG and no deputy directors-general. Moreover, the selection process was so ugly that it turned the whole atmosphere here in Geneva into one which was hostile and unproductive,” Rockwell said.
He was diplomatic about Seattle itself. “It's a wonderful city, full of great people,” Rockwell said, “but I think all of those involved would agree that things could have been done better.”
The protests themselves? Leaving aside those who took part in violent protests, he had kind words for the peaceful protest, calling it a “fundamental democratic right and all of us should extend the highest respect to those who object to any particular set of policies. Amidst the chaotic scenes, there were also some wonderful moments and some great kids in the streets. They made themselves heard and that was a good thing.”
For Rockwell, the simple fact is “that our meeting would have failed wherever it had been held, because we were inadequately prepared and the meeting itself was badly run.”
The next Ministerial Conference was held two years later in Doha, Qatar, with the negotiations named the Doha Round. One reason the round was launched in Doha was that the WTO learned from its experience in Seattle the need to involve developing countries far more. “It was the developing countries which drove the agenda in Doha and the result was the Doha Development Agenda — the first time an international economic negotiation was launched with development at its core,” said Rockwell.
Even 10 years on, the events of the week still stick with me.
Walking downtown that first day, when the demonstrators were trying to keep people from getting to the meeting areas, I was full of hope. After covering Vietnam-era protests, I thought things seemed to be controlled. Strong protests, but abiding by police guidelines.
I knew of a kind of back door at the Sheraton so I was able to slip behind the lines of protesters without incident. My assignment that first morning was to cover the big convening ceremony at the Paramount Theater. Strange times as I sat in the mostly vacant theater for hours, watching as the director-general Moore paced around the stage, talked on the phone and wondered what was happening. Toward noon, with my deadline pressing, they finally gave up on holding the meeting. The Seattle Times was still an afternoon newspaper at that time and there was a chance to get a report into the “Night Sports Final.” That day was a black eye for the WTO, and perhaps prescient, by forcing disappointed WTO officials to scrap plans for then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, to address an opening session of the trade meeting at the Paramount. Most of the top officials were trapped at the Westin, unable to move to the Paramount.
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