With seven weeks to go before the start of new global negotiations aimed at lowering trade barriers, representatives from the big economic powers are feuding over what will and won't be on the table.
The United States, Japan and the European Union all sing the praises of free trade. But at the World Trade Organization's offices in Geneva this week, where delegates are meeting to write the agenda for the talks that start in Seattle late next month, the often-conflicting economic interests of the various parties come out in detail.
The United States wants better access to foreign agricultural markets; Europe and Japan tend to counter that the Americans are moving too fast. Europe wants to go slow on approving genetically engineered products, citing potential health concerns; the United States views this as a trade barrier.
It is not just a debate among governments. In the United States and other countries, labor unions and environmental groups are speaking up, saying the WTO must pay more attention to labor rights and the environmental costs of trade and development. Companies speak up too, lobbying for new freedoms for themselves.
The talks, dubbed the "Millennium Round," will bring together delegates from the more than 130 members of the WTO. If delegates in Seattle settle on a framework, the talks are likely to go on for at least three years, building on the liberalization of the last such effort, the Uruguay Round, which began with a 1986 meeting in that country.
Past rounds have focused on the movement of manufactured goods among countries and the tariffs, quotas and other barriers that impede it. With many obstacles removed in previous trade battles, this new round is focusing more on services and on agriculture, which has long enjoyed special protectionist support in many countries.
The Seattle round will also look at burgeoning high-tech trade, such as software and other forms of "intellectual property" and the emerging realm of electronic commerce.
Home to large, super-productive mechanized farms, the United States is focusing much on opening markets for agricultural goods. Japan, however, responds that the WTO should not talk only about the obligations of importing countries.
"We have also to be talking about exporters, to make it more balanced," said a Japanese official. Countries that export farm goods might be required to give assurances that they will continue to make their supplies available, he said.
The United States also is looking to find new foreign markets for its service companies, which already do $246 billion a year in sales abroad. Highly computerized and with strong marketing programs, U.S. banks, insurance companies and brokerages tend to be among the world's most efficient.
Of special interest to Japan are rules on dumping, the selling of goods at illegally low prices in a foreign market. Earlier this year, the United States imposed dumping duties on a wide range of Japanese steel products; Japan continues to fume about that.
The United States, however, has said forcefully that it's not interested in having that issue on the table. "I'm concerned that the Japanese are out to torpedo this round," David L. Aaron, U.S. undersecretary of commerce for international trade, said recently. Aaron suggested Japan might be trying to avoid the pain of market-opening measures in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and services.
Equally tough is the issue of genetically engineered products, plants and animals whose genes have been tweaked to ensure a longer shelf life or resistance to pests. The United States argues that these products are safe and necessary to feed a world population now passing the 6 billion mark. In Europe, however, there is great concern about the health and environmental safety of such products.
While the industrial world tends to share a common view on the need to protect intellectual property such as computer software, lesser-developed nations do not see the issue of piracy as so critical.