January 2000

By David Trumbull

Nap Time in Seattle


When the Seattle WTO meeting faltered earlier this month it was significant that the talks were not "canceled;" the meeting did not "adjourn;" and the delegates did not "prorogue." Faced with rioters in the streets and delegates who could not agreed even on the agenda, meeting Chairman Charlene Barshefsky called for a "timeout" for the participants to "find a creative means to finish this job." Like rambunctious pre-schoolers, the ministers will have to go lie down on their mats until they learn to play better with the other children.

For fifty years now the only intellectually respectable position in adult America has been pro free trade and pro globalism. Democrats and Republicans are agreed on--and majorities voted for--trade liberalization. Occasionally a few Senators or Congressmen oppose a NAFTA or a WTO agreement but never so many as to actually threaten to defeat the legislation.

Rational disinterested dissent from the internationalist position is, for a large majority America's leadership class, simply unthinkable. A tendency toward protectionism is explained as self serving: "well of course liberal Democrat X supports high tariffs on manufactured goods, he gets his money from labor unions, but is not as if he actually believes this economic nonsense." Meanwhile an appeal to economic nationalism that calls on America to avoid entangling foreign alliances, is dismissed as an aberration, perhaps a sign of intellectual immaturity, and as further evidence that conservative Republicans indeed are "the stupid party."

Ah, they are so child-like, these economic nationalists and trade union protectionists. And so have they been treated by elected officials and editorial writers in the best publications.

Conservatives won battle; abandoned the war.

Free trade among the nations does, indeed, benefit everyone. A large and steady supply of inexpensive imported manufactured goods allow even Americans of modest means to enjoy luxuries that, a mere couple of decades ago, would have seemed unreachable. And poor people in lesser-developed countries are much less poor than they would be if it weren't for jobs created by lowing trade barriers. Trade liberalism, once considered a wildly libertarian and downright dangerous idea, is now so mainstream that only marginal characters--Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot--attempt a counter argument.

So what went wrong in Seattle? Well, the self-evident superiority of the free trade position is, it seems, not at all self-evident to blue collar workers with a declining standard of living. In a democracy it is not enough to get the politicians and the professorship of the elite universities on your side, you must persuade voters. Advocates of trade liberalization have failed to explain to ordinary working people why free trade is a good deal for them.

Worse, they have ignored the cries of people being harmed by our trade policies, treating them like children not to be heard. Back in October I spent some time with Pat Choate, Ross Perot's 1996 runningmate. Both in private conversations and publicly to a group of manufacturing industry leaders, Pat held forth on the "Ruckus" that he and other WTO opponents planned to raise in Seattle. Indeed, anti-WTO protests were planned, and publicized, well in advance of the Seattle meeting. Yet, somehow, President Clinton, the WTO members, and the Seattle police chief were blissfully unaware that trouble was brewing.

The globalists were not prepared. The result was failure of the Seattle meeting, a blow to the prestige of the WTO and of the U.S., and a setback for the cause of free trade. The perceived success of the protesters in closing down the meeting will embolden them in opposition to permanent Normal Trade Relations for China, which will be debated in Congress this coming summer. Any free trader who still thinks he can high-handedly advance the global agenda without seriously listening and responding to the arguments of the other side ought to be sent to bed without his supper.


David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.