Seattle strikes back, or shall we all just go fishing? After all the post-mortems and disappointments expressed over the outcome of meetings at the World Trade Organization summit there last month, Undersecretary of State for Economic, Business and Agriculture Alan P. Larson lashed back at those in developed countries who accuse the United States of protectionism.

At a lunch hosted by Macedonian Ambassador Lubica Acevska and the Rotary Club of Washington Wednesday, Larson addressed 25 ambassadors and other guests, spinning off and updating the adage: "Give a man a fish and he is fed for a day; teach him to fish and he is fed for a lifetime." He touched on equality of the sexes, protectionism, trade barriers, labor practices, inclusion and competitiveness--all issues he said are bedeviling agreements on trade in global markets.

Larson stressed that it was not just a matter of political correctness that "men and women" in developing countries should be able to sell their products in the global economy and to buy other products. "What if I am a fisherman in a developed country and fear that my wages will fall, or I will lose my job, if I face competition from this fisherwoman from a developing country?" Larson asked. "Because of her poverty, she may be willing to work longer hours or for lower wages. Is that unfair? Most of us would say that we should not refuse to buy the woman's fish simply because she is poorer and will work for less."

Larson had a captive audience, because at least four female ambassadors were listening. Uganda's Edith Grace Ssempala, Singapore's Heng-Chee Chan, Luxembourg's Arlette Conzemius and Acevska were there. Were they buying it all? "This was a nothing speech," one diplomat said later.

Larson said some countries had refused to support a tariff reduction proposal--called Accelerated Tariff Liberalization--in part because they wanted to protect their fishermen from competition from developing countries. "The pressure for protection is even stronger from European and Japanese farmers," he declared. The U.S. official said persuading farmers in developed countries that it is unjust to use trade barriers or trade-distorting subsidies to protect their incomes at the expense of poor farmers in developing countries was one of the "biggest problems" in launching a new round of trade talks.

However, in an interview last week, Japanese Ambassador Shunji Yanai said that inadequate time and preparation were factors that led to the failure of the Seattle conference. "We had very little time to reach useful agreements. There were some possible agreements, including the issue of labor and agriculture," he said while conceding that it is always difficult to start a new round of talks.

But, he said, "In spite of that fact, there was no sufficient or adequate preparation. I was not surprised by the failure. Member countries, everybody, could have organized the conference better. "People came to Seattle without having any previous agreements. We have to take into account that there is an increasing number of developing countries. They were very dissatisfied, and many felt they were left out of the negotiation process."

Still, it seems inevitable that trade interests will clash with ethical and political goals and the question of who gets to set and enforce rules about quotas, protection of the environment and certain labor practices. A number of diplomats representing developing countries insisted that the issue of labor standards can best and most appropriately be addressed by the International Labor Organization, rather than the WTO.

Larson spoke of success in certain pilot programs that take children out of factories and put them in school. "In some cases, the jobs they left behind have been filled by mothers, many of whom had not previously been in the job market," he said, giving an example from a program targeting the garment sector in Bangladesh that actually boosted the country's exports.

If you are looking listlessly at new catalogues stuffing your mailboxes and feeling sorry for yourself for all the things you think you need and simply cannot afford after the holiday spending spree, just remember this bit of good news also passed on by Larson: The number of people who get by on less than $1 per day all over the world fell from about 25 percent in 1987 to about 21 percent in the succeeding decade. That is about 126 million people.

Their Time Has Not Yet Come

About a half-dozen ambassadors who arrived here last month are cooling their heels waiting to become legal, which in diplomatic terms means presenting their credentials to President Clinton at the White House. The orchestrated and calendar-driven event awaits a signal from the White House, of course. Clinton seems quite busy, moving into a new house, holding hands with hesitant peacemakers in Shepherdstown, W. Va., and greasing the skids for Vice President Gore's presidential aspirations. Meanwhile, the ambassadors of Pakistan, Algeria, Armenia, Congo and Gambia are waiting. The new ambassadors from Israel and the European Union, who arrive within days, will also be on the list.