Free Trade Under Fire
August 2, 2001

In 1999, the World Trade Organization got a rude shock. At their meeting in Seattle, where the member countries had assembled to launch a new trade round, they discovered considerable--and ultimately insurmountable--rifts within the organization. The Europeans and the Japanese were implacably opposed to the removal of farm subsidies, the Americans wished to retain the use of anti-dumping duties to protect favored industries such as steel, developing countries assiduously sought to keep labor and environmental standards out of the discussions.

But it wasn't just the internal divisions that kept the WTO members sleepless in Seattle. They also had to contend with hordes of demonstrators on the streets raucously giving vent to a perplexing plethora of putative grievances. The protesters, a motley congeries of environmentalists, union officials and college students, loudly declaimed the WTO's efforts to liberalize international trade, arguing that increased trade and investment would result in degraded environment, exploited workers, and weakened governments.

Emboldened by their success in derailing the Seattle palaver, and no doubt pleasantly surprised by the media attention they garnered in the process, the protesters have since targeted several such meetings around the world. Most recently, they congregated in Genoa, Italy to disrupt the G-8 meeting. It turned out to be a particularly violent affair, marked by a death and charges of police brutality.

In such an inhospitable environment, trade agreements have become harder to come by. Even past agreements are susceptible to discord.

Take NAFTA. Under the provisions of the 1994 free trade agreement, Mexican trucks are permitted free access to U.S. highways. But alas, bowing to pressure from the Teamsters, the Clinton administration refused permission to Mexican trucks to travel beyond a 20-mile band from the border.

Now the matter is before the Congress. Democrats, acquiescing to labor unions fearing competition from the south, are seeking to restrict the entry of Mexican trucks, claiming that they are unsafe and a menace to U.S. motorists. Most Republicans, including President Bush, are intent on adhering to the agreement. By beefing up the truck inspection regime, they hope to deflect the safety argument, and with any luck, in January, Mexican trucks will join Canadian trucks in traversing U.S. roads.

In the meantime, after enduring recurring bouts of well-organized protests, trade officials have learned their lesson. The next WTO meeting, in November, will be held in Doha, Qatar. In the Middle East, they note, governments display scant tolerance for public discontent.

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