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A daily report from the World Trade Organization summit, Seattle

by LBO editor Doug Henwood

Saturday, December 4

This week's street carnival risked turning the main event, the ministerial summit, into a footnote. But the contentiousness outside also seeped into the convention hall, with ministers breaking off talks without a final communiqué. It had been widely assumed that some masterly worsmithing would be used to craft something vague enough to get all 135 member countries to sign on, to avoid the embarrassment of failing so visibly. But even that turned out to be too ambitious.

But Friday's failure was not without precedent. The point of the talks was to agree on a basic agenda for detailed negotiations over the next several years. But the ministers should have begun the conference with a draft that was supposed to have been worked out in negotiations in Geneva over the last several months. That never happened. In the run-up to the conference, there was much worry that the talks might fail. But that always seemed a bit incredible; it seemed more likely that the public worries were part of a strategy of trying to scare the negotiators into a more agreeable mood, or to lower public expectations. Instead, they turned out to be accurate.

A combination of substantive and procedural issues spoiled the proceedings. Clinton's call to include labor rights in the WTO alienated many Third World delegations, who, as a BBC report put it, thought it "was intended to undermine the competitive edge they derived from lower wages." Of course, Clinton probably made the suggestion to mollify the AFL-CIO and other domestic critics, fully aware that it would go nowhere within the WTO, and his negotiators quickly explained to their colleagues that the president "misspoke" when he laid out his position in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But progressives tempted to view the "South" as the good guys in a manichean battle of North vs. South should keep this in mind; Southern elites are quite happy to exploit their workers and ravage their environments (and many delegates from the "developing" countries expressed the wish that the Seattle police had cracked more heads from the first to clear the streets).

But labor rights alone weren't