WASHINGTON -- Amid signs of disarray in the effort to launch a new round of global trade negotiations next week in Seattle, Clinton administration officials yesterday promised success and portrayed international bickering as a normal part of the process.
The World Trade Organization will convene its annual meeting Tuesday in Seattle. But so far, its delegates cannot even agree on the blueprint for discussion, let alone on issues ranging from agricultural subsidies to child labor, environmental protection to Internet taxes, genetically altered food to union rights.
In Geneva on Tuesday, negotiators for the WTO's 135 member nations packed up and went home after failing to agree on an agenda for the Seattle meeting. White House officials minimized the development, saying that serious haggling will not occur until Seattle and that, 10 days from now, the WTO will have moved significantly closer to further reducing international trade barriers.
"There is a pattern to these things" that often includes disagreements and delaying tactics before the deadline, said
Charlene Barshefsky, the U.S. trade representative. "This is a negotiation. That's all it is. It goes up and down, up and down. At the end, it will all come together, because it has to come together."
Among other goals, the administration wants to reduce foreign government subsidies for Japanese and European farmers, while protecting the U.S. steel industry from cheaper imports.
Underscoring how badly President Clinton wants a successful WTO outcome, the White House has inquired about inviting the leaders of Japan, Brazil and several other countries to Seattle in a last-minute attempt to lend stature and momentum to the proceedings.
But the administration said it dropped the invitations after some leaders sent word that they were too busy and it became clear that deciding whom to invite and whom to ignore could ruffle diplomatic feathers, said Gene Sperling, the president's economic adviser.
Yesterday, Clinton called it "more of a logistical problem than anything else."
Sperling dismissed the suggestion that the lack of world leaders in Seattle besides Clinton would hinder the WTO parley.
"We never felt that the leaders being there physically in Seattle was going to play a role in any way," he said.
"What you need for the negotiations is the trade ministers. This is a very consequential meeting in which the trade ministers themselves need to come together, under the chairmanship of Ambassador Barshefsky, and hammer out remaining differences."
Clinton will be in Seattle for two days, giving a speech to trade ministers, speaking with U.S. farmers and meeting with some of the hundreds of humanitarian and environmental organizations that plan to protest economic globalization and the growing power of multinational businesses.
"I can't tell you exactly the nature" of what Clinton will tell the groups, Sperling said, but the president will "hear their concerns, to the degree that those may affect his discussions with Charlene during the negotiations."
It's no wonder that the WTO's Seattle proceedings aren't scripted in concrete, said economists and political analysts. For 50 years, the push toward freer world trade has focused mainly on lowering import tariffs and abolishing import quotas among a relatively few countries.
Now WTO membership has grown to 135 nations, and the issues aren't nearly so clear-cut. European consumers fear U.S.-made, genetically altered food. In many nations, powerful industries demand protection from cheaper imports, while environmental groups work to thwart economic expansion. Western nations want the Third World to adopt humane labor laws; developing countries fear they would lose a competitive edge under such laws.
Yesterday, at a conference in the Dominican Republic, a group of developing nations from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific basin demanded "special and differential treatment" from the WTO "as a fundamental principle."
But trade negotiations have never gone smoothly, and similar problems preceded other economic pacts, analysts said.
"The disarray and this public dysfunction was not unusual" in prior negotiations, said David Orr, an economist for Bank of America Corp. in Charlotte, N.C. "The posturing for public consumption was a lot different than what would happen in the negotiations."
Barshefsky stressed that the goal in Seattle is merely to agree on areas of discussion in a new round of trade negotiations over the next three years -- not to craft new trade rules themselves.
"It is not to prenegotiate the results of the round" she said. "Don't look for results that would come out three years from now."
Setting categories for negotiation, she said, won't be nearly as difficult as the negotiations themselves.
But even if new trade negotiations are hatched in Seattle, analysts on both ends of the political spectrum said they won't be surprised if the goals are relatively narrow and unambitious.
"These guys are hopelessly mired in conflict between governments," said John Cavanaugh of the Institute for Policy Studies. "I think there will be a stalemate in Seattle, and that's a positive development."
Barshefsky herself seemed to lower expectations yesterday, saying that "the key here is manageability of the round."
The previous, "Uruguay Round" of trade negotiations requires that new talks on agricultural and service-industry trade barriers begin soon, so those talks can be expected to move forward even if Seattle is a failure.
A WTO agenda of service and agriculture alone, with some other minor issues, might even allow the administration to claim success.