Deadlock? Failure? Let no one suggest to Charlene Barshefsky that either of these might be the outcome of this week's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.
Though 135-member countries are pushing 135 conflicting agendas as they search for consensus starting a new round of global trade negotiations, "we're very much on track," the United States' chief trade negotiator and host of the conference declared on day two of the gathering. "I have complete confidence we will be launching a new round on Friday," she added with characteristic optimism that she can finish what she starts.
Global trade talks are normally a drab business of delegates sitting at velvet-covered tables and communicating using such terms as "modality" and "countervailing duty." Barshefsky can speak that language as well as anyone, having spent much of her career as a trade lawyer. But in most other ways she bears little resemblance to her negotiating counterparts.
With her trademark silk scarves, she can be counted on to brighten up the conference rooms where trade deals are struck. She sings show tunes to keep up her team's spirits in the middle of marathon talks. She fires jokes across the table.
During a Beijing session last month, she was told of a proverb that says through fighting, people can become friends. If that's so, she responded, then she and her Chinese counterpart were practically married.
To be a good trade negotiator, Barshefsky says, you must always come to the table prepared and know precisely what you want. "You have to have in mind a thousand ways to get there," she said in an interview. "You keep your eyes on the people across the table constantly, because body language always speaks faster than the mouth."
Once a negotiation begins, she stays at it as long as it takes, once getting just 20 minutes of sleep during a 51-hour session with a Japanese team about computer chips. "She's got good stamina," said Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "When she's on the floor, she gets up again. . . . I feel that I am very well represented."
That, in fact, is the main beef against Barshefsky from activist groups that brought thousands of demonstrators to Seattle--that she represents U.S. company leaders all too well, while ignoring other constituencies affected by trade.
"Barshefsky continues to operate in a world in which her only responsibility is to promote commerce," said Scott Nova, director of Citizens Trade Campaign, a group that is critical of U.S. trade policies. "Whether she likes it or not, the USTR is not just a trade official. She's an environmental official, a labor official and a consumer safety official."
Last month, demonstrators from a Philadelphia AIDS activist group burst past security guards at the USTR headquarters on 17th Street NW and occupied an area outside Barshefsky's office before being arrested. They contend that her enforcement of patent rights for U.S. companies overseas keep life-saving pharmaceuticals out of the hands of people overseas who need them.
Barshefsky denies that she consults only with business leaders, noting that she has a legal responsibility to hear all points of view in devising U.S. trade policy.
To her a proof of the weakness of her critics' arguments is that at a time of maximum openness in trade, the U.S. economy is booming and unemployment is at historic lows. And, she says, the Clinton administration is pushing to include labor standards in trade rules.
In her tenure, Barshefsky has signed major agreements freeing up trade in information technology, telecommunications and financial services. Last month, she flew to Beijing at the last minute to wrap up a deal for China to enter the WTO.
She's largely managed to stay out of controversy within the administration, with the exception of 40 Beanie Babies that she brought back from a trip to China. Customs has a limit of one per family, and Barshefsky turned them over to the agency after word got out she'd brought them into the country.
Barshefsky graduated from the University of Wisconsin and attended law school at Catholic University. She settled in Washington and became a partner at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson, where she specialized in representing companies in trade disputes. In 1993, she was appointed a deputy USTR, working under Mickey Kantor in the early Clinton administration. She became the boss in 1997 after Kantor's departure.
"Most people become USTR and have to spend a year and a half learning what the issues are," said Greg Mastel of the New American Foundation, a Washington think tank. "She could have written a book by that point."
While she came with the right technical background, she didn't have a close tie with the White House--unlike Kantor, who chaired Clinton's first presidential campaign. In April, she urged Clinton to accept a trade deal that China was offering for entry into the WTO. Clinton rejected it, and many people in the world of trade policy used that to question Barshefsky's influence with the president.
Barshefsky also came to the job with minimal links to Congress, where many of the deals she negotiates must be sold. "She's got to build that [relationship] up at a time when it's tough to be friends with Congress," Mastel said.
In Seattle, Barshefsky has been on the move constantly, chairing joint sessions of the huge conference and sitting down for one-on-one meetings with her counterparts from other countries. The deadline is set for Friday night; she says she'll make it.
IN PROFILE: Charlene Barshefsky
Position: U.S. trade representative
Age: 49; born in Chicago
Education: BA, University of Wisconsin, 1972; law degree from Catholic University in 1975
Career highlights: Lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson in the District, specializing in international trade law and policy; deputy trade representative, 1993-96
Personal: Married to Edward Cohen; two daughters
SOURCE: Who's Who, Federal Staff Directory
CAPTION: U.S. trade negotiator Charlene Barshefsky said of the talks: "We're very much on track."