Is This What Failure Looks Like?

Five years after the Battle in Seattle, results are mixed. Third World delegates have gridlocked the WTO but in the U.S. anti-globalization organizers have struggled to convert street heat into policy.

In the annals of global trade policy, there is no denying that 1999's anti–World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, held five years ago next week, were a critical event. They helped inspire Third World delegates to rebel against the U.S. party line and inspired hundreds of millions around the globe, including left-leaning governments in South America. It was a shot in the arm that has led to further gridlock for the WTO and multilateral trade agreements. In the United States, the WTO protests created a debate where little debate had previously existed.

But it's one thing to shut down a high-level meeting for a day; it's quite another to get your priorities enacted as public policy. And so, in the half-decade since Seattle's groundbreaking protests, anti-globalization and fair-trade organizers in the United States have struggled to find ways to not simply create debate but win.

The Battle for Hearts and Minds

"In the first year after WTO [in Seattle], people were so energized, but there was a naive idea that we could prevail just by putting 50,000 people on the street," says Jeremy Simer, director of Seattle's Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ), the city's primary inheritor of the anti-globalization torch lit by WTO. "It was a fluke here; the stars aligned in this amazing way based on months of hard work and luck.

"Since then, a lot more activists have started to think like organizers, working to educate people in their own communities in a way that's strengthening and deepening the movement. Protest continues to be important when it's needed, but it's also about reaching out and bringing new hearts and minds into the work."

"There are more of us now than there were five years ago," says Antonia Juhasz, project director for the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), a San Francisco–based think tank that was at the center of organizing in 1999. "There's been immense progress in this country. Five years ago, my task was to explain that there were institutions like the WTO, International Monetary Fund [IMF], and World Bank. Now we are facing the conundrum of being the seat of the empire. We're the last to feel the dire consequences of these institutions because they were designed to benefit us. In countries like Argentina and Brazil, they've already figured it out."

The protest success in Seattle led to a dozen or more attempts, in cities across North America and Europe, to protest economic and political summits of various sorts, beginning with an IMF/World Bank meeting in spring 2000 in Washington and going on to Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiating meetings in Quebec City, Canada; a G8 summit in Genoa, Italy; the 2000 major party political conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles; and a host of lesser events.

But by 9/11, the flame of Seattle-inspired protest was already beginning to sputter. While activists were attempting to create another Seattle, law enforcement was learning from what went wrong here (see story on p. 25). More forceful police (and army) tactics led to escalating, ever-more-ugly confrontations that encouraged street-battling young radicals but which discouraged the sort of middle-class, family-oriented attendees who made more recent antiwar protests larger and, in the public's eye, more credible.

The window breaking perpetrated by a few dozen anarchists in Seattle became justification in the American public's mind for violent law-enforcement measures that in turn further limited the public's sympathy for future demonstrations. At the same time, the violent protester image—the urban myth that Seattle's downtown had been burned to the ground by thousands of "rioters"—was hugely popular outside of the U.S. As one Mexican friend notes, "The attitude among people was that we didn't know you [Americans] had it in you."

Angry, even violent anti-globalization demonstrations were not invented in Seattle; in places like India and Malaysia, protesters died during the '90s in battles with police. But the Seattle demonstrations and the resulting WTO gridlock gave rise to a new generation of fair-trade activism, particularly in South America. The anti-privatization protests in Bolivia in 2000 and 2003 (the latter of which deposed the government), the fiscal meltdown in Argentina in late 2002 (which did the same), the popular protests that kept Venezuela's anti-globalization president, Hugo Chavez, in office, and a continentwide wave of elections of left-leaning leaders critical of the "Washington Consensus" are all part of a lineage that runs through Seattle. Those governments, particularly in Brazil and Venezuela, have given rise to a powerful new bloc opposed to American trade policy. In 2003, that bloc stymied WTO expansion (at Cancún) and further negotiation of the FTAA (in Miami).

Even as negotiations inside stalled, the Miami FTAA summit also showed the current limits of anti-globalization protest in the U.S.: widespread allegations of civil rights abuse, of arrests without provocation, and of buses of elderly protesters turned back by police at the city limits. Most importantly, the turnout—after months of local media hype warning of "another Seattle"—was a relatively anemic 20,000. The protests generated little national media coverage. In an era when police routinely warn of the possibility of a "terrorist" attack during any large protest, Miami was the first, and perhaps last, test of the possibility for post-9/11 anti-globalization mass protest.

In the Heart of the Empire

But if the original Seattle protest and its successors were successful in this country at sparking debate, what has happened in that debate?

During the Clinton and then Bush II administrations, there has been no abatement in the U.S. commitment to free trade. But, due to the Seattle-inspired difficulties at the WTO, there has been a significant shift in tactics. Rather than relying on the WTO and other global institutions to enforce its trade agenda, Washington has turned more to bilateral agreements and limited regional multilateral ones such as the Andean Initiative and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). As more countries in Latin America and South America have come to be controlled by skeptical governments, this new approach has allowed the U.S. to pick and choose its trade partners, focusing on conservative governments and countries vulnerable to American economic and diplomatic pressure.

In the most significant globalization-related legislation of the last five years, in 2002 the Bush administration won long-coveted fast-track authority to enable the U.S. president to unilaterally negotiate and enact trade agreements, with Congress' role limited to an up-or-down vote afterward. The narrow victory came after previous attempts had failed, blocked by the same coalition of labor, environmentalists, and other Democratic-based groups that battled NAFTA in the early '90s.

The problem anti-globalization advocates face is that free trade enjoys solidly bipartisan support; as Simer notes, "The higher you get into echelons of power, the more corrupted politicians are to the orthodoxy [of free trade]. Living in the heart of the empire, it's harder for elected officials to have perspective on what free trade is doing to damage people's lives."

This orthodoxy was clearly shown in the 2004 elections, where globalization did not, in itself, figure in a campaign where John Kerry made a major issue of job loss due to outsourcing. Both Kerry and Bush are ardently pro–free trade; of the Democratic primary candidates, only the tepid campaigns of Richard Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich made a point of challenging the effects of NAFTA and similar treaties. And while John Edwards used rhetoric critical of outsourcing, that rhetoric was tempered when he went to work for Kerry. Ironically, Kerry then lost the election by narrowly losing a swing state—Ohio—that has been perhaps the hardest hit in the country by the effects of NAFTA.

Test for Success

Locally, the record of Western Washington's congressional Democrats in our trade-dependent state is mixed—a combination of free-trade advocacy with opposition to the agenda of the Bush administration. Both senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, are solidly free-trade Democrats, having voted for everything from NAFTA to fast track to recent bilateral agreements with Chile and Singapore. Jim McDermott was a primary sponsor of the African Growth and Opportunity Act in 2000, but has voted "no" on everything since Bush took office. Others are somewhere in the middle: Jay Inslee voted against fast track twice but for the trade agreements; Adam Smith voted against fast track when it failed in 2001 but for it when it passed the following year. No Western Washington congressperson is a consistent opponent of free trade.

One of the problems fair-trade proponents encounter is that there is no simple sound-bite language for the alternatives to free trade, even though, as Juhasz notes, "There have been alternative policies to the corporate globalization model at least as long as there's been corporate globalization." They include, for example, trade mediation bodies through the United Nations and "subsidiarity," the idea that power in trade agreements should devolve to the most local level at hand—the exact opposite of the current model, with its reliance on international institutions overriding local autonomy.

Curiously, few of the local protest institutions that sprang up with the WTO protests have survived these five years. The Direct Action Network evaporated within months; the Independent Media Center has gone on to flourish as an international alternative media network but closed its founding storefront on Third Avenue a year ago. Founded three years ago, Simer's CAGJ carries the local anti-globalization torch these days.

Organizers like Simer are upbeat that their message has penetrated the mainstream of American political discourse. They are pointing to the next major legislative battle: CAFTA, the Central American regional agreement that was completed last May. It will probably be submitted to Congress soon, either in the current lame-duck session or early in 2005. When it is, it will provide the first true test in three years of how far the anti-globalization movement has come since Seattle.

"CAFTA is the referendum on the free-trade model," Simer claims, "because WTO and FTAA are so stuck. . . . If we can stop this, it's sort of the nail in the coffin of the free-trade model. They have to start looking into other ways to advance their interests."

The WTO protests in Seattle were a quantum leap forward in terms of public awareness of trade issues. Since then, however, U.S. organizers—unlike their brethren in Latin America—seem to have been stuck trying to take their influence to the next level. With initiatives like CAFTA, time is not on their side. While the public education process goes on, each new trade agreement is another brick in a wall of a particular corporate trade structure, one that, once built, will be hard to tear down. That, ultimately, is the organizers' goal. Their success will determine how we remember the WTO's moment in Seattle in another five years: as the birth of a movement, or a moment of unrepeatable glory.

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