Two weeks before the World Trade Organization’s new round of global trade negotiations dramatically collapsed, Cato’s Brink Lindsey warned both that the talks would fail and that anti-free traders could dominate the media spotlight.
At the Cato Institute’s conference on November 17, “Seattle and Beyond: The Future of the WTO,” Lindsey predicted that “a noisy and energetic coalition of especially strange bedfellows from Buchananites and Perotistas on the right to Naderities and environ-mentalists on the left” would be out on the streets of Seattle “commanding an intense media spotlight and the chance to frame the debate about globalization in their chosen terms.” Lindsey, director of Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, also warned the crowd that “in addition to the possibility of an outdoor fiasco in Seattle, a public relations fiasco as anti-trade activists grab all of the headlines, there is the very real possibility of an indoor fiasco as well. Despite the lateness of the hour, WTO negotiators are nowhere near the achievement of a consensus on what subjects ought to be included in the new round and what can and ought to be achieved.”
Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth College cautioned that both the WTO’s friends and its enemies “want to expand and distort the WTO agenda in a way that will prove harmful to its central mission.” He pointed out that some WTO supporters may inadvertently create a global trade bureaucracy by making the organization responsible for too many policies. “One of the strengths of the WTO has been that it has been a very small organization with a very narrowly defined agenda,” he said.
What is the best way to build support for free trade in America? Russell Roberts of Washington University in St. Louis said that supporters of free trade must make the case for free trade to the “open-minded skeptic.” He said that supporters of free trade have “won the debate in theory. To win the applied debate, we have to find better ways of bringing the theory to life.” He suggested that, when opponents of free trade focus on towns abandoned because of changes in trade patterns, supporters “illuminate the fate of the next generation that will choose to live elsewhere and who, because of free trade, will be able to find new opportunities elsewhere and will thrive.”
Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Susan G. Esserman defended the November trade agreement between China and the United States that paved the way for China’s entry into the WTO. She argued that the agreement is “an historic agreement that is a win for America’s export-related jobs, for Chinese economic reform, for our global trading system, and for the long-term U.S.-China relationship. The agreement’s results first are comprehensive. China, like other new WTO members, will reduce its trade barriers to levels comparable to those of major trading partners, including some industrial countries.”
More than 200 people attended the conference, held in the Cato Institute’s F. A. Hayek Auditorium. The conference, broadcast live on the World Wide Web, is available for viewing online along with other Cato programs. Excerpts from some of the speeches are available on the January 2000 edition of CatoAudio.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2000 edition of Cato Policy Report.