The Seattle protesters have missed the point. The issue is not whether labor and environmental rights are important -- they are -- or whether they will be increased globally -- they will be. The issue is the process used to define those rights and, more to the point, which countries will pay for the rights. It looks as though the protesters want the poorest countries to pay for those new rights, and that is not fair. Never have so many protested in the name of global justice to make the poor poorer.
Start with the basics. The World Trade Organization (WTO) system is based on old-fashioned barter. If the United States wants to sell more widgets in Thailand, it must give Thailand's producers access to the United States' market of equal value. These exchanges reflect the trading of interests among sovereign countries, each of which defines its interests to reflect its own economic, social and political position. By exchanging interests, each country is better off.
Within this negotiating forum, WTO members have developed a highly sophisticated -- although hardly perfect -- series of rules to make sure that once the barter is done, countries live up to their bargains. That has meant that countries have given up some freedom to package protectionist measures in environmental clothing, but it has hardly hampered the protection of the U.S. environment. It simply requires practicing rudimentary rules of good governance before governments intervene in the name of good causes.
The genius of the WTO system is that if one country defines its national interest as needing a change in another country's laws, it can bring about that change only by giving the other country something in return for making the change. Change cannot be forced by unilateral action or economic power. Negotiations in the WTO lead to win-win situations. And the victory can be on the environmental front, the labor front or an economic front.
The protesters apparently do not like this format for defining international rights. To them, we should force countries to comply with our view of the best law for them by closing our borders. True, that would be effective, but so is threatening to invade that country to get our way. Either approach imposes the cost of changing its law on that country, without the beneficiaries of the change bearing any cost. The WTO's more refined way of letting a country get its way is to make that country pay for it.
This can be illustrated by looking more closely than the protesters have at the now infamous shrimp-turtle case. The WTO did not rule that endangered species are unimportant or that they may not be protected under the WTO system. It ruled that before the United States bans the importation of Thai shrimp, it has an obligation to sit down with Thailand, find out what Thailand can do to protect the endangered turtles and come to an agreement that meets the interests of both countries.
That is hardly anti-environmental. And it means that if Thailand has a different view of the facts or its interests than the United States does, the United States may have to give a little to get its way. We pay for what is in our interest if it is not also in the interest of our trading partner.
I do not believe -- as the protesters apparently do -- that the only way to protect turtles is to impair the livelihood of Thai fisherman. Instead, we should buy Thai shrimp and negotiate with Thailand to see what it will take to get that country to protect the turtles. That is the WTO way, and both countries win. If the protesters had their way, the people of Thailand would bear all the cost of a better world.
Labor rights are similar. The poor countries of the world see trade and markets as a way out of poverty. To deny them access to our markets in the name of labor rights is to reduce their chances of getting out of poverty. The WTO enables us to trade our need for labor rights against their need for greater access to the U.S. markets.
The protesters think that they are marching in the name of values and rights, but that is not how their position is perceived around the world. Instead, the world sees this as the march to stop the WTO from restraining the tendency of the United States to use its economic muscle to get its way without the give and take of negotiation.
The writer is a professor of international economic law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland.