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Lessons From Seattle

Wednesday, December 1, 1999; Page A42

GLOBALIZATION IS a maddeningly elusive foe. The bundle of forces that it connotes--mobile capital, mobile labor, mobile goods--has no clear location or author; there is nobody to go and shout at. So perhaps it's not surprising that the summit of the World Trade Organization was met with violent street protests yesterday. A mute resentment had been building up for years. The summit offered an opportunity for a statement.

This may turn out to be no bad thing, if the trade ministers in Seattle draw the right lessons. The first is that the advance of globalization cannot be taken for granted, no matter how much prosperity it promises. Trade advocates, the Clinton administration foremost among them, have failed to convince voters of their case, largely because they lack the courage to defend trade as opposed to exports. At every opportunity, the administration boasts of how much America is selling abroad. But it neglects to add that imports are good too: They reduce prices, spur competition and prevent the dollar from growing so strong as to stifle exports. Because politicians only defend half of trade, voters believe that trade is only half good. This concedes the argument to trade's opponents.

Next, it is clear that the international organizations that oversee the new globalized order suffer from a certain perceived lack of legitimacy. A few years ago, the World Bank was the target of furious protest from environmentalists and nongovernmental aid agencies. The bank has responded by reaching out to critics and by channeling a growing share of its money through those agencies. In the same way, the International Monetary Fund now stands accused of arrogance and secrecy. It is under pressure to make the selection process for its new boss more open than it used to be.

Mike Moore, the WTO's chief, understands the need to win over critics. He has showered the nongovernmental groups in Seattle with invitations to consultations and briefings. The administration is even more eager: Commenting on yesterday's protests, President Clinton declared that the protesters should be brought within "the process." In principle, one might object that unelected advocacy groups have no right to special treatment. But the Internet has handed these groups too much power to make their complete exclusion practical.

To reach out to the critics, the WTO needs to become more open; in particular, its dispute settlement panels should give up their current secrecy. But the WTO should not seek to buy legitimacy by taking all criticisms to heart. If it took on as much of the role of protecting labor standards and the environment as its critics want, it would quickly lose focus. Those issues may need international regulation of some kind, but they should come under the umbrella of U.N. agencies or Kyoto-like programs.

This holds a final lesson, one that some Republicans in Congress might ponder. Trade these days is so entwined with social issues that selective internationalism is decreasingly possible. It used to be fine to support trade but denounce international environmental accords at the same time. But in the absence of a strong regulatory framework for the environment, disputes about animal conservation and air pollution have ended up at the WTO, putting the organization under great strain. The health of the WTO may turn out to require something like a world environmental organization.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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