Obama’s Choice

Obama’s Choice

A decade after Seattle, there is no WTO expansion. But there is also no WTO turnaround.


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.

Replacing this retrograde regime of global governance is our current challenge–and the growing evidence of its devastation provides fertile ground. The financial crisis has generated calls for re-regulation of the economy from previously unimaginable quarters. Yet simultaneously, the usual bloc of corporations, along with their government allies, are intensifying, shock doctrine-style, their push for WTO expansion.

Contrary to press reports, the current WTO deadlock is not premised on mercantile squabbles over specific issues. Rather, there is a fundamental divide over the future course of global economic governance. A small but extremely powerful bloc is pushing for more of the same, while the majority is demanding a rewrite of existing terms. Yet no countries have been willing to risk responsibility for formally ending the Doha Round.

American negotiators went to a WTO “housekeeping” ministerial in Geneva–called ten years to the day after Seattle–where discussion of the Doha Round was noticeably absent from the official agenda. But on the sidelines, and before and after it at WTO headquarters, negotiations have continued. The agenda–set before the economic crisis–would impose more financial deregulation, curtailing countries’ control of their energy and other policies needed to redress the climate crisis and further concentrating corporate control of food production.

The Obama administration’s default position has been to support the Doha Round’s conclusion, with the old Bush policy still standing in as the US position. However, this reflects a lack of attention rather than carefully considered policy. Bush’s 2001 Doha Round agenda fundamentally conflicts with the Obama administration’s domestic priorities–existing WTO rules must be altered for Obama to deliver on the goals that will determine his success as a president. This includes eliminating WTO limits on how tax dollars may be spent to create US jobs and stimulate the economy, and removing existing financial deregulation requirements that conflict with key proposals now before Congress to stabilize the economy. By highlighting these conflicts–and organizing our demands for change–global justice activists can create an imperative to turn around the WTO.

Indeed, Obama made impressive reform commitments during the 2008 campaign, repeatedly pledging to change the rules of the global economy to work for all Americans, not just special interests, including specific WTO changes. And early attempts by Obama’s trade representative, former nuclear industry lobbyist Ron Kirk, to push through Congress Bush’s leftover NAFTA expansion agreements with Colombia and Panama were derailed by the White House, which recognized the political consequences of such folly. But corporate interests are putting enormous pressure on Obama to continue the failed model. Newspaper editorials slam him as a protectionist every time he questions the status quo. Plus, there are no high-level reform proponents inside the administration, where Clinton-era personnel involved in creating this mess lead the economic team.

On the other hand, in Congress a powerful bloc has sponsored the TRADE Act, legislation that calls for renegotiation of the WTO–and NAFTA and CAFTA–while setting out a new model for trade agreements and a new process to negotiate them. It has emerged as the leading instrument to implement the change demanded by many and articulated by Obama. It is also a powerful tool around which US activists have been organizing that reinforces the demand by most WTO member countries since Seattle to focus on fixing the existing damaging rules.

Global justice activists worldwide have turned to permanent campaigning at home to make their governments better represent their interests. Press reports from the Geneva ministerial may compare the numbers on the streets in Geneva with those in Seattle rather than focusing on the results measured by the deadlock on WTO expansion that activists have delivered by various means.

Officials at the Geneva ministerial faced constant reminders of expectations, with massive farmer rallies in India, fisher protests in Asia and union demonstrations in capitals worldwide. More than 140 events celebrating the Seattle anniversary and calling for WTO turnaround occurred across the United States. And a decade of campaigning has transformed the US political dynamics for the ongoing Battle After Seattle. Since 2006 more than seventy Congressional candidates have been elected on platforms advocating replacement of the NAFTA-WTO model, replacing incumbents supporting the status quo.

As Americans committed to global justice, we must present the choice facing Obama in the stark terms it represents. Will he stand with the majority of Americans and implement his campaign commitments to change the rules of the global economy so they no longer “favor the few rather than the many”? Or will he side with the banksters and other global elites and fall back into the failed status quo? To repeat a popular refrain from the streets of Seattle: the whole world is watching.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It takes a dedicated team to publish timely, deeply researched pieces like this one. For over 150 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and democracy. Today, in a time of media austerity, articles like the one you just read are vital ways to speak truth to power and cover issues that are often overlooked by the mainstream media.

This month, we are calling on those who value us to support our Spring Fundraising Campaign and make the work we do possible. The Nation is not beholden to advertisers or corporate owners—we answer only to you, our readers.

Can you help us reach our $20,000 goal this month? Donate today to ensure we can continue to publish journalism on the most important issues of the day, from climate change and abortion access to the Supreme Court and the peace movement. The Nation can help you make sense of this moment, and much more.

Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy