The "Green Room" holds a special place in the history of global trade talks.
Named after a room at a long-ago trade conference that was actually green, it's wherever the ministers from the big industrial powers and a few specially invited smaller countries go to shut the doors and reach private deals that are then presented to the rest of the world as a fait accompli.
U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky convened a Green Room meeting in the Seattle convention center on Friday morning, thinking the elite group could break an impasse reached by the larger group of delegates attending the World Trade Organization talks.
It didn't work. Though Barshefsky invited a few other countries -- including Egypt, Singapore and Brazil -- to the Green Room proceedings, it became clear that the essentially undemocratic nature of the private meeting was part of what caused the collapse of the four-day talks later that night.
The delegates from many developing countries still felt shut out, as did the demonstrators who tasted tear gas on the streets of Seattle. Many of the protesters charged that the Geneva-based WTO was a closed body, the tool of rich countries and corporations. Delegates from poorer nations complained they were never in the room, literally or figuratively, when real decision-making took place.
"They have been treating us like animals, keeping us out in the cold and telling us nothing," the Associated Press quoted veteran Egyptian trade negotiator Munir Zahran as saying.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. After similar complaints from developing-country delegates at a WTO meeting in Singapore two years ago, a system of broader "working groups" was put in place for Seattle. They involved meetings of delegates from many countries, who would pore over particular issues, try to narrow differences and then make recommendations to the entire group.
Barshefsky had arrived in Seattle dismissing the possibility of deadlock. "Failure is not an option," she said at a White House briefing. The conference's working groups met straight through the night on Thursday.
On Friday morning, with no deal emerging, Barshefsky decided -- reluctantly, U.S. officials say -- to wrap up the groups and move the action to a Green Room. This one was a conference room on the sixth floor opposite the U.S. delegation office.
Officials from the big industrial countries attended, as did selected working group members. Seated around a large, square table with Barshefsky acting as chairman, they started off talking about agriculture, the big dividing issue between the United States and Europe. They talked and talked, six hours or more. They weren't ready to do a deal; some delegates complained that their counterparts behaved as if they were on the floor of their parliaments at home, mouthing official policy, not working toward a deal.
The Green Room was not having its usual effect.
But even if it had, questions were arising as to whether any decision the group reached would stick. "There were only 25 countries inside the room, and 110 were outside," Barshefsky noted Friday night. The outsiders would have gotten, in essence, just an hour or two to read, evaluate and interpret detailed agreements that could have had major impacts on their economies.
The Friday evening deadline was closing in. The WTO delegates had to be out of the Seattle convention center and, with demonstrations still going on, were not likely to get a positive response from the city for a request to continue somewhere else.
At about 5 p.m., Barshefsky was coming to the view that they had to quit. She stepped out of the chairman's seat in the Green Room and consulted with Michael Moore, the WTO's director general. He did a quick poll of various ministers in the room, who agreed that continuing was futile.
U.S. negotiators kept President Clinton updated through phone calls to White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta.
WTO officials promised Friday night to come up with a new system for furthering negotiations, one that would be both efficient and "transparent" -- trade-speak for open. The problem, Moore said, is that "we're running an institution of over 130 members based on a culture 50 years old of 30 or so members."