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What are we to make of the World Trade Organization (WTO)?
Most nations of the Asia Pacific region support the idea. At least, at the governmental level. What the average people think as a whole is debateable.
That the nations of the region support the WTO is not particularly surprising. Consider that the region has generally benefited from foreign trade over the last several decades. Indeed some nations like Japan and China register huge trade surpluses, especially with the United States, every year.
The trade bonanza this year in the Pacific Rim is expected to smash old records. Part of this can be attributed to the low value of many Asian currencies following the financial crisis.
However, many nations whose currencies were not effected by the crisis, such as China, still expect to see massive trade windfalls.
In such an environment, the leaders of the Asia Pacific nations may see the WTO as just more of a good thing.
However, in most of the same countries there is swelling discontent with the trade body. Indigneous peoples, labor unions, environmental groups and various other non-governmental organizations have objected loudly to the WTO.
These organizations often represent the voice of the people better than the mostly elite goverment officials, even in so-called "democratic" countries.
In the Pacific Rim, as most anywhere else, the government is ruled by the wealthy. Many officials, or their families, have interests in the industrial sectors of their society. They benefit the most from the investments brought in by free trade.
One shouldn't be unfairly harsh though since an argument can be made that increased foreign investment means jobs for the people and greater inflows of foreign capital.
Yet, critics assert that the benefits to the poor are secondary to the primary purpose of increasing the wealth of industry executives.
The poor benefit only when their interests do not conflict with big business. Otherwise, the rights of the average person are not considered. The sacred land of indigenous people or the health of babies living near factories are of lower priority than profit margins.
The American labor unions played a big role in the collapse of WTO talks in Seattle. They convinced Clinton to press for international labor standards, which developing nations have traditionally rejected.
But another major factor was the shoddy treatment accorded members of the developing world within the conference itself.
If the WTO was meant to be an instrument of power for the developed nations, they certainly made that no secret in Seattle. In many cases, the poorer nations were locked out of the most important meetings and were provided with inadequate facilities to conduct their business.
The reaction in Asia was swift. Even Japan, which has tended to snuff out suggestions of bilateral free trade in favor of the multilateral WTO, has somewhat changed directions.
The WTO battle, though, is far from over. The forces that be, that have the money, will now probably push harder than ever. Let's hope that, whatever happens, the people themselves are the eventual victors.
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