THE COLLAPSE of trade talks in Seattle was not, as one unelected protest organizer claimed, a glorious triumph of democracy. It was not, as various labor spokesmen suggested, a victory for working people, who would have benefited from the prosperity that trade liberalization promises. Nor is the lesson of this failure quite as simple as some free traders say. However tempting it is to blame Bill Clinton's timidity on trade for this setback, the truth is more complicated.

Mr. Clinton's critics will doubtless portray the Seattle breakdown as part of a pattern. The president who pressed for the Rambouillet peace talks on Kosovo without preparing for the possibility of failure, who demanded a Senate vote on the test ban treaty without bothering to find out which way it would go, now looks guilty of a similar myopia. He resolved to host a trade summit for the new millennium without asking whether it would work; days before the talks' collapse, his trade representative declared that failure was unthinkable. Yet this retrospective criticism is only half fair. Trade liberalization has always advanced through a process of setting ambitious goals and not always meeting them.

Mr. Clinton will be accused of another error, too. He has tried to build a domestic constituency for free trade by absorbing the arguments of its critics, rather than tackling them boldly. He has worried publicly about the job losses that imports cause, neglecting to emphasize that imports also boost competitiveness (and hence job creation) at American firms, and that barriers to imports amount to a tax on U.S. households. Equally, he has accepted the links among trade, environmental standards and labor conditions. These links are anathema to most governments abroad, and American emphasis on them was a big factor in the setback in Seattle.

Again, this criticism is only partly fair. It is true that Mr. Clinton has failed to defend the virtue of imports, and so given the impression that protectionists are right to hate them. But even a more vigorous defense might not have been sufficient to build domestic support for trade; Mr. Clinton is right to think that labor and environmental concerns need to be addressed also. Some free traders are so contemptuous of politics, and of the unease that globalization causes, that they refuse to acknowledge this problem. They attack Mr. Clinton for failing to get fast track through, then attack him for compromises that are aimed at making future passage possible.

Moreover, the case for linking trade to labor and environmental standards can be made on principle, not just on grounds of political expediency. Ardent free traders accuse the United States of hypocrisy in pressing these links: Why should developing countries adhere to American standards when America itself exterminated the buffalo, polluted the air and tolerated sweatshops when it was developing? But this objection implies a moral relativism that this country is right to reject. The mistakes of our past should not lead us to endorse other countries' mistakes now. It is counterproductive, certainly, to impose first-world wages and environmental standards on the poor world, and that is not what the Clinton administration proposed. But are free traders really indifferent to child labor or the extinction of the turtle?

The complicated truth is that Mr. Clinton was right in principle to press basic labor and environmental standards, but probably wrong on the tactics. He calculated that he could deliver different messages to different audiences, and still preserve the momentum of free trade. The failure in Seattle shows that he miscalculated. But it does not show that he should give up fighting for his trade agenda.

The labor unions and the greens who organized the street protests will now claim victory. But this victory means that the world's poorest farmers cannot export their crops; it means fewer jobs for textile workers in the shanty towns of Rio and Jakarta. The expansion of trade is a deeply worthwhile cause. President Clinton, and those who aspire to succeed him, must not turn their backs on it.