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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

WTO Aftermath Roundtable

Air Date: Week of

As the dust settles in Seattle, host Steve Curwood talks with Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, and Jonathan Adler, with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, about the significance of the protests and the future of world trade.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The recent collapse of the World Trade Organization negotiations in Seattle, and the accompanying violent and nonviolent protests, mark a historic turning point in the annals of global politics. Joining me to assess the aftermath of the WTO summit are Carl Pope and Jonathan Adler. Mr. Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, went to Seattle to protest. Mr. Adler is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a supporter of free trade. Jonathan Adler, let's start with you. What do you think? Did these trade talks collapse of their own weight, as some have suggested?

ADLER: It collapsed because the various sides on the various issues were unwilling to give ground. The developing countries, both their governments and their NGO community, said that they did not believe that they needed to mortgage their economic future by creating new opportunities for protectionism through environmental regulation.

CURWOOD: So is this just another bump in the road for the World Trade Organization? Or is this a defining moment, perhaps, in the body's history? Carl Pope?

POPE: I think this is a defining moment. We like to call the WTO the Wrong Trade Organization, because it's not just about trade. Jonathan's right about that. If it limited itself to tariffs and quotas, it probably could function more or less as it had, and it could open up a lot of economic opportunity. But it's been trying to write the rules of the game for the world's economies. And as the president realized when he came to Seattle, that process isn't acceptable to people any more, unless they're involved in it, and the WTO doesn't involve people in it.

CURWOOD: Did we witness in Seattle the birth of a whole shift in international politics in terms of what some folks call a "third force," that is, non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups like the Sierra Club, participating really in government issues and being part of the discussion? Is civil society becoming a third force in world politics, along with government and business?

POPE: I think civil society has been emerging steadily more strongly for the last 15 years. I think this conference marked the arrival of that force as a very, very strong voice in trade issues, where it has previously not been as loud or as clear. So I think you're seeing a gradual increase globally in the influence of civil society, and actually, I think Jonathan and I both think that's a good thing. That's something I think we agree about.

CURWOOD: Do you? Jonathan?

ADLER: I'm glad to see that more individuals and groups are expressing their views on issues. I think some of the aspects of this increase could be unfortunate. I think some of the calls to put NGOs, which are essentially self-appointed representatives, that are unelected, that usually have some particular interest they want to bring to the table, I think that giving some kind of special status to NGOs would be very unfortunate.

CURWOOD: Why would that be different from business, which is not elected?

ADLER: Business NGOs don't have any greater rights in the negotiating sessions than environmental NGOs. And I think that's a good thing. I think that non-elected representatives of various interests should be welcome and encouraged to express their opinions, to protest, to raise their concerns publicly and in the media and the like. I don't think they should be given any special status in negotiating sessions.

POPE: I agree with you completely on that, Jonathan, but I would add to that that I think that the current practice of the WTO, in which many of their rulemaking and conflict panels are full of representatives of individual corporations, are equally inappropriate. But I agree with you. I don't think we should have a seat at the table. We should merely have the ability to see what's going on at the table.

CURWOOD: Carl Pope, the demonstrations in Seattle have to have been the biggest and noisiest demonstrations that the Sierra Club has participated in since you've been director, I would guess. How important do you think the protests were?

POPE: I think the protests were a critical ingredient in encouraging others who oppose the millennial round to say no to it. But I think the real importance of the demonstrations was not their impact on the delegations, but the fact that they opened the eyes of a great many Americans, who didn't really understand what the WTO was up to. It began a national dialogue; it certainly didn't complete that dialogue. You can't learn a whole lot by watching tear gas. But I think we have an opportunity now to have a much more in-depth and national conversation about what kind of a trade organization is the right trade organization for the United States to belong to. I think a lot more Americans now think that what happens at the WTO, or these other international institutions, is something they need to get involved in. I think that's healthy for democracy, and I think it's a permanent change.

CURWOOD: Jonathan Adler, what do you say?

ADLER: I don't believe the protesters had much effect. The United States staked out its position, the European Union staked out its position. The developing countries staked out their position. And there wasn't much give.

CURWOOD: One of the interesting features of these protests was that groups that you don't usually see together -- I'm thinking particularly labor and environmental activists -- walking side by side in Seattle. They didn't certainly agree on all the tactics. But what sort of significance do you see that this coalition has for the future of what people are calling, I guess, civil society?

POPE: I think the coalition you saw come of age in Seattle had been building for a number of years. And it has been building much more strongly around these global issues than it has been around domestic issues. You had not only labor and environmentalists; you also had human rights advocates. You had family farm organizations. You had a number of student groups. You had churches. People who believe that the global society which is emerging needs to be accountable to some god other than Mammon. And it needs to be driven by some goals and values other than just money. And it needs to be open and democratic and to respect democratic decision making, and to have some values.

CURWOOD: Jonathan, where do you think this movement is going? Is it a flash in the pan or is it around for a while?

ADLER: I think it's inherently unstable, and I think one of the best issues to see that on is climate change, where the AFL-CIO is fundamentally against the Kyoto Protocol, and the environmental community is very strongly in favor of it. I think that the WTO is one set of issues where, for now, they agree. But it's not a sign of greater cooperation and agreement on other issues, because there are still very fundamental differences.

CURWOOD: Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club, and Jonathan Adler is a senior fellow in environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Gentlemen, thank you both for talking with us today.

POPE: Thank you very much.

ADLER: Thank you.



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