The spectacular 1999 protests that shut down the WTO ministerial in Seattle were transformational. The demonstrations abruptly upended conventional wisdom by demonstrating that American citizens opposed the globalization regime that the government and corporations were pushing on the world. And the revolution in the Seattle negotiating suites was as dramatic as the one in the streets: a plan for massive expansion of the WTO’s scope and powers was defeated. A new generation of activists experienced the power and joy of winning.
A decade later–and despite endless efforts by the world’s most powerful corporations and governments–there is no WTO expansion. But there is also no WTO turnaround.
Americans now have a critical role to play in determining whether the Battle of Seattle, and the decade of worldwide campaigning for global justice that followed it, will deliver real change. At stake is whether the Obama administration will lead an effort to modernize the rules of the global economy or continue the Bush/Clinton/Bush agenda, which has fostered devastating economic, food and climate crises.
The WTO ministerial following Seattle was scheduled for Qatar. There, two months after the 9/11 terror attacks, the Bush administration exploited the shaky global political context to coerce countries into launching the “Doha Round.” This was the same WTO expansion agenda rejected in Seattle. Two years later, the Cancún ministerial collapsed, as officials inside reiterated opposition to WTO expansion while protesters outside filled the streets. With the viability of the WTO itself now at stake, US and European officials agreed to jettison some extreme elements of their agenda. But what remained was still extremely dangerous. Thanks to an enormous amount of internationally coordinated, country-by-country lobbying and mass protest starting a year before the Seattle ministerial and continuing ever since, talks have remained largely deadlocked.
For the past four years, WTO expansion proponents have been afraid to call another Doha Round negotiating ministerial. They know that unless they can announce a done deal, expansion will be dead, with potentially fatal consequences for the WTO’s legitimacy. But contrary to press reports that the global economic crisis has ended the era of market fundamentalism, 153 member countries remain bound to a full complement of neoliberal policies required by the existing WTO rules, established in 1995. And even though numerous governments have been replaced with ones that better represent their citizens’ interests, the WTO stands as a barrier against change.
Hundreds of millions continue to suffer daily the consequences of this regime. The number of people suffering from extreme poverty in poor countries has increased since the WTO was established; so has hunger, with two-thirds of developing countries now net importers of food. In the United States 5 million manufacturing workers have lost their jobs, which, along with increased offshoring of high-end service-sector jobs, has contributed to declining wages. Meanwhile, US families have been flooded with unsafe imported food and products, many bearing the names of US firms that use their WTO privileges to relocate production to countries where they can exploit sweatshop labor and avoid health, safety and environmental regulation.
The WTO is called a trade agreement, but it is better understood as a powerful delivery mechanism for a package of neoliberal policies, many unrelated to trade, that provide new rights for capital and new constraints on governments’ abilities to ensure their populations’ well-being. Signatory countries are obliged to conform their service-sector, investment and development, food, government procurement, intellectual-property, environmental and safety policies to constraints enumerated in the seventeen agreements the WTO enforces. Domestic policies that violate these agreements can be challenged in WTO tribunals, with trade sanctions imposed until countries comply with WTO dictates. Almost 90 percent of challenged policies have been found to violate the rules. Now a mere threat of challenge often results in initiatives being chilled, as occurred earlier this year when provisions in Obama’s stimulus package ensuring that our tax dollars created jobs for Americans were weakened to comply with the WTO’s ban on procurement policies favoring local workers, goods and services.