If there is any clear message coming through the clouds of tear gas and the broken glass in Seattle this week, it is that the terms of debate about free trade have changed in the United States.
It is no longer a debate about trade at all, but rather a debate about globalization, a process that many now understand affects not only traditional economic factors such as jobs and incomes but also the food people eat, the air they breathe, the quality of medical care, and the social and cultural milieu in which they live.
The trade debate, once the province of a tight group of technocrats, business leaders, trade lawyers and academics, has now spilled out onto the streets and into the living rooms of America. It takes in farmers and feminists, defenders of butterflies and Tibetan monks, right-wing nationalists and left-wing anarchists.
For years, President Clinton and other advocates of free trade have figured they could win the debate simply by pressing over and over again the economist's mantra that increased trade results in better jobs for workers and more choice for consumers. End of story.
But it turns out people also care about the loss of the corner bookstore and the wholesomeness of their food and that the soccer ball that seems so cheap at the Sports Authority may have been made by a 10-year-old halfway around the world. Nor, as a matter of principle, do many take kindly to the notion that a global trade authority they never heard of apparently has the power to penalize them for a gasoline emission standard passed by their elected legislators.
People are openly discussing how the world's political architecture--up to now built around the sovereignty of the nation-state--may have to be reworked to provide for a more global economic governance system that is open and democratic enough to gain legitimacy in the eyes of voters around the world.
Indeed, those were the subtexts in Clinton's remarks here Wednesday afternoon to trade ministers from around the world. The ministers and their minions came to begin a complex process of horse-trading over tariffs and trade barriers, subsidies and anti-dumping laws--things corporations worry about. But the president, no doubt mindful both of the protests in the streets and the votes in next year's elections, rattled their water glasses by telling them their deliberations were too secretive and too narrow.
With so many earnest young protesters clashing with riot police over these issues, some commentators were quick to draw parallels to the anti-war demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But Tom Hayden, one of the student leaders from '68, made a distinction. "What we had was maybe one or two issues we were dealing with," Hayden told 5,000 protesters at a People's Gala on Monday night. "You here, you're dealing with everything. That's how big this globalization thing is."
And even business leaders, emerging from their daily strategy session this morning at the Washington Athletic Club, acknowledged that the events in Seattle had crystallized a growing sense of unease among Americans about globalization.
"The trade community, in order to manage its agenda, will have to understand that we have to broaden that agenda to what had been thought of as untraditional issues," said Timothy Bennett, senior vice president of the American Electronics Association. "It's not just a question of losing jobs in Peoria anymore. Trade now affects just about everything in their lives."
"The economy is moving so fast now that it strains our political and social systems and creates anxieties that people feel that they have lost control," said Scott Miller, the Procter & Gamble lobbyist who is heading up the business coalition here. "We know we have to address that now."
Calman Cohen, president of the business-oriented Emergency Committee for American Trade, put it bluntly: "The business community has failed miserably so far in connecting the benefits of trade with the daily lives of ordinary people. What went on here should be a wake-up call."
The news from Seattle is not all bad for the pro-trade forces, however. No longer is much of the conversation about reducing trade or restoring any of the old trade barriers. And there is general acknowledgment that further globalization is inevitable. As Jeff Faux, the head of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, put it the other day, "we don't doubt that the game has changed and that trade will continue to expand. What we want is to rewrite the rules."
There are also serious disagreements within the ranks of the anti-globalization movement that, in time, are likely to fracture a coalition that this week united tree huggers and steel workers, chicken farmers and vegetarians.
The same environmentalists, for example, who excoriated the World Trade Organization for violating American sovereignty by overriding clean-air laws also wants to use the trade law to force Brazil to protect its rain forests.
And will unions that say all they want is for developing countries to adopt a minimum wage be satisfied if that minimum turns out to be $1 an hour?
Many activists this week raised clenched fists in support of ending hunger in the developing world while condemning companies that develop genetically modified food. But what will be their stance if Monsanto ever comes up with a genetically modified seed that allows wheat and corn to grow in Africa in sufficient quantities to feed millions now suffering from malnutrition?
In reality, the demonstrators in Seattle this week were a thoroughly mixed bunch, from anarchistic hooligans at one extreme to pacifist nuns on the other. Some were aging hippies, their gray hair now pulled back in ponytails. Others were kids with nose rings cruising the streets on skateboards. Both were outnumbered by the thousands of union workers in baseball caps and nylon jackets. And not surprisingly, there was a large contingent of Washington wonks on hand from policy shops on Capitol Hill.
By and large, these are the people who have never bought into the New Economy, either because it has left them behind or because they never embraced its values. They are folks who don't check each day to see how their 401(k) is doing or hang out with people who have become millionaires after their companies went public. Their perspective on globalization is less economic than it is cultural and political.
What they all seem to agree on is that giant corporations have gone too far in gaining control over their lives and defining the values of their culture and that the WTO has become a handmaiden to those corporate interests.
"They are the agents of negligence and pure greed that are responsible for all the harms people have experienced in the last decade," said Christine Ono, 27, of Edmonton, Alberta, as she roamed the streets of downtown this week, banging on an African djembe drum slung from a shoulder strap.
Normally, that would be the kind of simplistic comment that someone like Howard Lewis, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, would easily dismiss. But not now--not after Seattle.
"I think people in the business community need to go home, regroup and figure out how to recast the terms of this debate," Lewis said yesterday. "This has been one frustrating week."