WORLD trade has generally been regarded as a classic MEGO (my eyes glaze over) subject in Americans newsrooms, but this fall the vote in the United States Congress on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) managed to stir a fair amount of passion.
The accord had been widely supported on editorial pages, including this newspaper's, and was approved by strong if not overwhelming margins, with broad bipartisan support. The new Republican congressional leadership made a big point of claiming GATT as an instance of cooperation with the White House. (It probably didn't hurt that both parties already wanted the deal anyway.)
But aside from the usual opposition in America to anything seen as an infringement of national sovereignty, a number of thoughtful voices were raised to ask about child labor, workplace safety, environmental regulations, and other such matters in the developing countries to which GATT will require the US and other Western countries to open their markets. Obviously, these concerns are not completely altruistic: Businesses and labor unions have an interest in not being undercut by low-cost foreign producers. Conversely, not every member of Congress supporting GATT is heartlessly dismissive of human rights.
But we must consider, if GATT makes trade sanctions less useful as a way to address human rights and quality-of-life issues, what tools are available instead?
Free-trade agreements can help human rights, some advocates say. Amnesty International sees the North American Free Trade Agreement as helping shed light on abuses in Mexico simply because it will increase contacts across the border.
Moreover, the US has been suggesting that it will seek to address the child labor issue through the rulesmaking processes of the World Trade Organization created by GATT. Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the former Mexican president and the candidate the US is favoring to head the WTO, was not a big hit on a campaign swing through India recently when he observed, ``Trade should be based on rules.''
India is not interested in seeing an issue made over child labor. A straight economic argument might say, Look, India is a democracy, albeit a messy one; it could outlaw child labor if it wanted to. But for India today, letting children work in factories is a rational economic choice - a choice other countries would make if faced with the same poverty.
This argument is not, however, universally persuasive, and does even less well when applied to undemocratic societies like China.
International public opinion, even when less than optimally well informed, can have considerable power on human rights issues.
Nelson Mandela notes in his new autobiography that when the ``Free Mandela'' posters started going up in London, people probably thought ``Free'' was his first name. But by his release in 1990, he was so well known - and the world so small - that when his private jet stopped for refueling north of the Arctic Circle en route from Canada to Europe, he was greeted by a group of Eskimos who had seen his release on television and called out, ``Viva ANC!''
We shall see whether the humane issues associated with GATT are addressed with the same power of public opinion as was the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.