WTO Woodstock

Review & Outlook
Copyright 1999 Wall Street Journal
November 26, 1999

There are a lot of heavy issues confronting the upcoming WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle. Toxic waste, debt forgiveness, genetic engineering, child labor, threatened indigenous tribes, endangered trees and turtles, AIDS, pollution--and that's just the protest menu. The official agenda for the meeting is trade, specifically trade liberalization. But it's going to be hard to hear what the assembled worthies are saying above the din of tens of thousands of activists converging on Seattle for the mother of all protests.

Already the anti-WTO bash is under way. In Washington last week, a gaggle of anarchists and other angries muscled their way into the office of U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. "Kill the WTO," screamed one group. "Essential medicines for all nations," demanded another.

And check out the Web site of the Ruckus Society at www.ruckus.org. Its Globalize This! page has been salivating for weeks at the thought of making mischief in Seattle. The best section is the Action Handbook, packed with suggestions for attention-getting stunts such as "How To Hang Yourself From An Urban Structure," complete with an equipment list (carabiners, slings and one rope tied as a noose), a helpful illustration and a detailed safety warning ("a good activist is a living activist"). Ruckus also wants to help free Tibet, a good thought, but for now all roads lead to Seattle.

What a motley crew. Marching and shouting alongside Third World peasants, nongovernmental organizations from every corner of the globe and the bolshie fringe groups who denounce these NGOs as "collaborationist proponents of capitalism with a human face" will be representatives of more upscale groups like Greenpeace. Seattle churches have organized huge clumps of parishioners to parade for debt forgiveness for poor nations. Machinists from Boeing have been assigned as marshals for an advertised protest march on the WTO of 50,000 local unionists.

It had to happen: Woodstock meets the Non-Aligned Movement. Only this time around, it's not about love.

It would be funny if it weren't so sad. It's obvious why U.S. labor leaders say they are for fair trade, which translates as "you buy from us but we won't buy from you." They have every incentive to keep U.S. workers locked into dead-end jobs that people at the lowest end of the educational and skill chain can perform just as well, and need more, in other countries. The more Americans move up into white collar jobs, the less union dues money and power there will be for the high-living labor officials.

But what about everybody else? It's difficult to know exactly what's going on, though it would be interesting to learn just who paid for all those NGO air tickets to Seattle, not to mention how much medicine for the world's poor that money might have bought. Of course, everybody loves a circus.

Then there is the view, recently reported by the Journal's Bob Davis, that the explosion of advocacy groups at Seattle may be a sign that we have entered into yet another of those eras where so many people are so rich and comfortable--especially in the West--that they can afford to fixate on notions of how awful everything is. Presumably, this is the flip side of the phenomenon that occurs in times of great danger and stress, as in Hungary during World War II, where a notoriously suicide-prone population had so many real problems to worry about that they stopped killing themselves.

If the current fixation on the WTO and free trade as the font of all evil were just a passing spasm, we could kick back and enjoy the show. The trouble is, for every activist on the street in Seattle, there are hundreds of millions of hard-working people the world over whose own chances for the future depend very much on whether their country grows more prosperous. That means their lives depend on whether there will be a market for the goods they grow or produce. However much activists may claim the moral high ground in Seattle, they will be standing atop the prone bodies of people who hunger for the fruits of free trade.

Perhaps it's just as well that Bill Clinton, having praised and welcomed the protesters as friends of the earth at his news conference last month, apparently has failed to persuade an array of world leaders to join him in Seattle. One thing and another, this WTO meeting is not likely to be a pretty sight.

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