Addled in Seattle

Ever since a group of colonists got dressed up as Indians and threw British tea into Boston harbor, Americans have put faith in the restriction of trade as a noble weapon for lofty goals.

This mercantile method of manipulation, for instance, helped win the cold war. It has hurt dictators from Mao to Saddam, and bent other nations to the will of the United States.

But only some of the time.

Most of the time, this tactic of war-by-other-means really just eased the riled conscience of Americans over some distant wrong. It often served as an internal test over who was more idealistic, or even more patriotic.

Shorn of lofty language, trade curbs look a lot like a kid who won't let anyone into his sandbox if he can't get his way. It feels right, but it does more harm than good. History shows that the expansion of free trade, far more than restricting it, brings strong winds of reform, from democracy to to better working conditions.

In Seattle, outside the meeting of the World Trade Organization, the peaceful and well-meaning tea-party protesters tried to revive that ancient faith in trade tactics. They want the WTO - a body set up by elected governments - to regulate commerce along US ideals. While their goals are by and large worthy, their tactics and aim are misplaced.

World bodies other than the WTO are already set up to form a global consensus over such issues as labor rights and the environment. And even if the WTO could be equipped to handle noncommercial topics, it is elected governments who set up the WTO and who must get that message. Trade issues are best tackled at the ballot box, not the battle lines in Seattle.

What's more, not all global ideals move at the same pace. Expansion of workers' rights into such nations as India take time and meet more cultural resistance than the rapid globalization of business and electronics. Why restrict the reformist influence of trade when patient diligence on these other issues is needed?

But the protests were not the real action in Seattle. Rather, the unspoken WTO agenda is a plan by Europe, Japan, and others to thwart the longstanding US goal of expanding free trade in agriculture and services, two of its economic strengths.

Those two areas were largely left unsettled when the WTO was founded in 1993 after years of negotiations. And yet it was the US, under President Reagan, that sought to take old global trade agreements beyond just manufacturing goods, both for its own sake and to expand global trade. The US even gave up much of its right to wield unilateral trade sanctions in order to live under WTO rules.

To protect farmers, Europe and Japan have tried to put other issues, such as antitrust rules, on the WTO table in hopes of using them as bargaining chips against US demands for more free trade in agriculture.

President Clinton misses the point by pushing the WTO to take up labor rights. He likely did so to help Al Gore win union support in the campaign.

Instead, the US, as the historic champion of free trade, cannot let misguided protests or an overpoliticized president derail the effort to expand trade and its reforming influence around the world.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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