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Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 1999 /29 Kislev, 5760

David Limbaugh

David Limbaugh
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Clinton's labor pains -- ONE INESCAPABLE TRUTH has emerged from the failed WTO trade talks in Seattle. Foreign leaders have less tolerance for Bill Clinton's high-handedness than American politicians do.

In what we hope will be his final foreign policy hurrah, Clinton sought to use the talks to firm up his legacy by achieving major breakthroughs in international trade and by bolstering Al Gore's presidential campaign by shoring up his support from labor.

The breakdown in the negotiations can be attributed to Clinton's conflicting goals and his underestimation of the resolve of foreign leaders.

Clinton tried to have it both ways. He wanted to expand trade, yet accommodate all of the special interest demands of his core anti-trade constituencies, including labor and environmental activists. The problem is that these goals are often mutually exclusive.

In fact, many nations suspected a U.S. plot to use higher labor and environmental standards to drive up their costs of production and make them non-competitive. And, of course, they were right to a degree. Surely no one believes that organized labor lobbied Clinton to insist on better labor standards for foreign nations out of any altruistic concern for their workers.

Even the normally supportive British were on to Clinton's ploy. The Electronic Telegraph reported that "Clinton's miscalculation in trying to use the talks, as he has used so many other international treaty negotiations, as a grandstand for scoring domestic political points infuriated many delegations from the European Union and developing countries."

With unmitigated gall, Clinton attempted to assert dictatorial control over the substance and procedure of the meetings. But the leaders of the developing nations proved to be less compliant to Clinton's commands than he expected.

Clinton forced his own agenda on the delegations even over the objection of his own negotiators. The official administration line was that they would merely attempt to establish a study group on labor issues. Instead, he announced that the WTO should impose sanctions to enforce core labor rights for all member nations.

Clinton wasn't just demanding that trade tariffs be reduced around the world, but that foreign nations implement bold labor and environmental reforms, including minimum wage laws.

There is certainly nothing wrong with efforts to persuade other nations to enact labor and environmental measures to benefit their own people. But to skip that step and jump right to a proposal for penalties for all who don't immediately adopt American standards is the height of arrogance. Indeed, Egypt's trade minister, Youssef Boutros-Ghali warned, "if you start using trade as a lever to implement non-trade related issues, that will be the end of the multilateral trading system."

Clinton also managed to offend and anger Latin American and Caribbean leaders by encouraging potentially dangerous protests to bully recalcitrant nations into accepting his non-trade demands. And he alienated other nations by trying to arrange for secretive meetings among smaller groups of nations when the larger meetings failed.

U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky convened a Green Room meeting in the Seattle convention center on Friday morning. Green Room meetings are reserved exclusively for the major industrial nations and a select number of smaller countries.

This "undemocratic, private meeting" infuriated officials of some of the excluded nations. "They have been treating us like animals, keeping us out in the cold and telling us nothing," complained Egyptian trade negotiator Munir Zahran.

And British delegates were also reportedly appalled when U.S. officials convened a working group on labor standards that the Pakistan delegation had denounced as illegal.

Clinton evidently thought he could either fool or ride roughshod over other nations by securing his trade deal while obtaining sufficient concessions to placate the unions and the environmental lobby. As it turns out, he accomplished neither and may have even triggered future trade wars.

Many American conservatives have expressed great concern over the World Trade Organization because of its capacity to override our sovereign laws and authority. How ironic then, that it was the sovereignty concerns of foreign nations, not the United States, that ultimately led to the breakdown in these talks.

Clinton's grandiose and self-serving plan backfired. Not surprisingly, it was his brazen disrespect for the national sovereignty interests both of the United States and other nations that blinded him to the landmines in his overreaching demands.

JWR contributor David Limbaugh is an attorney practicing in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and a political analyst and commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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