The Battle of Seattle, a 50,000-strong protest of the World Trade Organization meeting in that city in November 1999, united labour unions, the environmental movement, Indigenous communities and social justice activists from the Global North and South as few issues had or have since. For a time, it looked possible to stop and roll back the neoliberal-ideology-fuelled, corporate-dominated version of globalization that was being stealthily codified into the WTO agreements and regional trade deals like NAFTA. Another world seemed eminently possible, and given the danger to our planet, absolutely necessary.
A globe-spanning anti- or alter-globalization movement scored an impressive win in Seattle, delaying the introduction of a new negotiating mandate at the WTO and putting corporate elites and their government backers on the defensive. The year before, the same movement had defeated the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), a plan to internationalize the ludicrously anti-democratic investor–state dispute settlement system that rich countries were forcing into bilateral investment treaties with the Global South. Two years after Seattle, an equally spirited and more brutally policed alter-globalization protest in Quebec City against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) would throw those talks permanently off-kilter.
Yet for all this effort and global solidarity, the corporate juggernaut moved relentlessly forward. Plans to negotiate new WTO agreements covering virtually every aspect of economic policy would stall. But many countries simply included chapters on these issues—like the functioning of state monopolies, how local governments spend public money, strict limits on environmental rules, and longer and broader monopoly drug patent protections—in “WTO-plus” bilateral and regional deals.
Like other rich countries, Canada walked away from post-2001 efforts at the WTO to make development, not corporate profits, the foundation and priority of global trade rules. Instead, consecutive federal governments continued to foist the NAFTA model onto poor and middle- income countries while jumping into anything-but-progressive mega-regionals like the Trans- Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union.
The financialization of most areas of public policy—another gift of the neoliberal era—has also continued apace since November 1999. Privatization of public health, water and other social services and infrastructure; integration of public pensions with the stock market; ever shrinking corporate tax rates and the normalization of tax avoidance by the rich; the co-optation of environmental and consumer protections by self-regulating industry lobby groups; and near total corporate control of food are just a few of the visible consequences.
To commemorate and consider the impacts of Seattle, and the destructive trade model the protests tried to stop, I asked activists who were and are still part of the global justice movement the following three questions:
1. What were anti- or alter-globalization activists right about?
2. What did they fail to anticipate about the WTO or the agenda behind it?
3. What does the future look like for the WTO or the corporate globalization project more broadly?
Here’s what they told me.
"Even before the outbreak of the current China-U.S. trade wars, a new trend toward deglobalization of the world economy was evident."
The protestors understood that global corporate elites had big plans to lock in restrictions on democratically elected governments through an expanded WTO, and that this agenda had to be exposed and challenged. Powerful intellectual property rights blocked access to affordable medicines, while pro-market services rules threatened to commercialize public services. New standards-setting codes restricted governments’ right to regulate to protect health and the environment. But before the Seattle protests, the public and even many elected officials had little idea just how intrusive the WTO’s new legal framework could be.
That veil was lifted in Seattle. By then, a critical mass of developing countries had realized how badly their interests had been sidelined. Public attention and concern had also grown because of controversial WTO rulings affecting conservation of sea turtles and dolphins, and the banning of hormone-treated meat, among other public policy issues.
After the collapse of the MAI negotiations in 1998, corporate lobbyists seized on the planned “Millennium Round” as their best bet to further codify and entrench neoliberal disciplines. But the protests, massive publicity, and renewed resistance from developing countries stymied that agenda, making the Battle of Seattle one of the most effective and iconic alter-globalization mobilizations ever.
Unfortunately, the corporate globalization agenda found a new outlet in bilateral and regional free trade agreements (FTAs), which proved harder for social movements to fight. The U.S. and EU began aggressively pursuing bilateral FTAs. Soon, other countries and trading blocs followed suit, resulting in the famed “spaghetti bowl” of bilateral and regional agreements.
Social movements and progressive governments had some wins, for example defeating the planned FTAA. But like-minded conservative and neoliberal governments forged many smaller deals that typically included “WTO-plus” services, investment and intellectual property provisions. This patchwork of agreements tied the hands of future governments, interfering with the ebb and flow of democratic politics between left and right. The subsequent explosion of investor-state disputes also took many unawares.
Thankfully, the world has now woken up to the unacceptable threats posed by investor–state dispute settlement (ISDS), and new global social movements are making headway in campaigns to reverse the damage and eliminate it. The future of the WTO is far from bright. It has been largely sidelined as a negotiating forum. The Doha “Development” Round is deadlocked because of deep, unresolved divisions between developed and developing countries.
Corporate lobbyists haven’t given up on using the WTO as their tool. The failed Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) talks were an attempt to complete the unfinished GATS agenda, by doing an end run around developing countries. In the current discussions on e-commerce, corporate lobbyists continue to pursue their narrow commercial interests while paying lip service to concerns about data privacy, consumer protection, and negative impacts on local economies and the global climate.
Hardball tactics by the U.S., which is blocking appointments to the Appellate Body, threaten the WTO’s main role as a dispute settlement forum. By the end of this year, dispute settlement may grind to a halt. More fundamentally, even before the outbreak of the current China-U.S. trade wars, a new trend toward deglobalization of the world economy was evident. With the world’s biggest trading powers ignoring the WTO in favour of unilateral threats and retaliation, others may begin to question their own compliance, especially when that involves defending their food safety or climate-change reduction policies. The overreach and corporate bias of WTO rules and rule-making was exposed by the Seattle protestors for all to see. Two decades later, if a reconstituted WTO is to have any relevance or positive role in a new, more multipolar world, it will have to finally heed those concerns.
Scott Sinclair is Director of the Trade and Investment Research Project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the author of multiple books on the WTO, General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and Canada’s free trade agenda. He recently co- wrote and edited an international report on alternatives to the corporate trade model called Beyond NAFTA 2.0, which is available on the CCPA website.
We got that the WTO was (to that date) the ultimate venue created to deliver the promise of economic globalization, namely, to free markets from government interference and allow global capital to set the rules of trade, finance and commerce. We got how the WTO then would pose a major threat to the whole concept of public services, to laws and regulations protecting human health and the environment, and to workers’ rights. Hence the importance of “Teamsters and Turtles, Together at Last.” We also got the need to form international alliances to fight the WTO, as neoliberal policies were already creating deep economic divisions between and inside nations.
In concentrating on the WTO (and I was present and protesting at all the ministerial meetings from Seattle to Hong Kong), we failed to understand how the powers that be slipped sideways—to get around the resistance we and many of the countries of the Global South had mounted—and turned instead to regional and bilateral trade and investment agreements.
I would say that our success in exposing the corporate agenda of the WTO pushed that agenda underground where it was harder to fight.
Governments stopped trying to convince us all that trade deals were good and turned them over to their bureaucracies and away from the public eye. One exception to this was the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), a sort of mega version of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) first proposed to the WTO. When many developing countries balked, the MAI was shunted over to the OECD where it was taken for granted it would pass without notice. However, a great coalition that had first formed to fight the WTO came together to defeat the MAI—a rare and true win for our movement. Alas, victory was brief, as ISDS is now embedded in over 3,500 bilateral investment agreements and many regional trade deals.
I am actually hopeful about the possibility for a new narrative around international institutions and global governance. The thirty-year promise that economic globalization would lift all boats has proven to be a contemptible lie, with three-quarters of the world’s working age population now forming the precariat—part-time workers with no benefits or security. As well, people around the world know that uncontrolled corporate-led growth has led to the climate crisis that threatens all life on Earth. The sides are being clearly drawn and the lies exposed. In my view, the WTO is a discredited institution ready for the dustbin of history. A new day is waiting.
Maude Barlow is Voluntary Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and the author, most recently, of Whose Water is it Anyway: Taking Water Protection into Public Hands (ECW Press, September 2019).
5I believe that Seattle did represent a turning point. Not primarily because civil society groups showed up in numbers, but because for the first time since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was founded in 1947, developing countries (the group of 77) were reasonably united in their opposition to further liberalization. The fraud of the false promises, lies, and bulldozer tactics that allowed the WTO to be born had become painfully apparent in the five years prior to Seattle.
That said, civil society groups, mostly from Canada, the United States and the Third World Network played a key role in providing developing countries with critical analysis and intelligence, and by providing moral support, including when people showed up in large numbers in Seattle. I believe the community had a pretty solid understanding of trade liberalization and the WTO regime by 1995. And our critique of the regime as having codified—having legally entrenched—the fundamental elements of global corporate rule was sound and correct.
If I disagree with my colleagues about anything, it is that I believe the corporate agenda was essentially completed in the mid 1990s, with a global blanket of bilateral investment treaties (BITs) having been woven to compliment the “trade” deals. Successive proposals for further liberalization were essentially unnecessary, at least legally, and in many ways were simply a make-work project for trade bureaucrats (public and private), whose numbers had greatly expanded between 1986 and 1995. What gaps still existed in the formal framework were being readily filled by the tribunals “applying” the rules.
What I believe we have seen more clearly since Seattle is the play of market power that has always moderated the influence of international commercial, investment and trade law. That explains why, for example, investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) tribunals never find against the U.S., and why China can ignore the intellectual property provisions of the TRIPs agreement.
On the other hand, I think we are still failing to grasp how the globalization of food systems has become the single biggest driver of increased greenhouse gas emissions. Left to run its course, we will not survive the development model entrenched by the WTO, but it is very difficult to see any means of escape. But as the Fugs instruct us, in their Refuse to Burn-Out album, “Party, Party, Party till the Gloom goes away.” But which way to the party?
Steven Shrybman is a public interest lawyer with Goldblatt Partners and author of The World Trade Organization: A Citizen’s Guide (Lorimer, 1999). He has been at the forefront of some of the more important public policy and legal battles to defend and promote the public interest in the face of corporate globalization and neoliberal policies of privatization, deregulation and free trade.
Protestors were right that the WTO’s attempt to launch the Millennium Round of negotiations in Seattle was a corporate-driven attempt to shred human rights, environmental standards, public health policies and the rights of developing countries, while weakening national sovereignty and democratic decision-making. In short, we were right to ensure that the ministerial conference ended with the suspension of the planned deliberations.
Looking back, many of us might not have fully realized at the time how likely it was that if we managed to disrupt the negotiations for a while, the negotiations would not reach a successful conclusion. There were certainly indications going in that the agenda was quite ambitious. USTR (the United States Trade Representative) and other industrialized country delegations, as well as the WTO itself, went in with a long list of expectations that reflected a kind of hubris. What they may not have expected was that many chapters of the agreement (e.g., services) covered so many sectors that it ignited opposition from many different parts of society that were represented in the streets, in teach-ins, etc. The WTO itself unthinkingly strengthened our ability to mobilize the massive protest that resulted.
Meanwhile, at the time we were not aware of how fragile the negotiations were. The draft ministerial declaration reflected many tensions and serious differences between industrialized nations and the Global South, many of which would be difficult to resolve in just a few days. On top of that, the negotiating process was essentially designed to marginalize or ignore poorer nations. This created a dynamic that contributed to the failure.
It seems like corporations and neoliberal free-traders have learned little from Seattle, except to take measures to remove themselves further from accountability and scrutiny. The decision to locate their next (post-Seattle) summit in Doha is an obvious example.
Although the WTO has taken a back seat, it is still part of a process that has continued to push for an agenda largely designed to favour multinational corporations and investors. So far, regional agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its successor CPTPP (which excluded the U.S.), as well as other plurilaterals (like TiSA and the Environmental Goods Agreement) and bilateral negotiations, have included many of the same principles and WTO language, even as the emergence of nationalist leaders has put parts of the agenda on hold.
Companies still have unparalleled influence over national trade authorities
Companies still have unparalleled influence over national trade authorities so that when leaders like Trump claim leadership in effecting long-standing demands of civil society, like eliminating the NAFTA investor-state regime, it’s not surprising that the new agreement (USMCA or CUSMA) ends up riddled with exemptions for the fossil fuel industry, while other proposed changes (e.g., to NAFTA’s intellectual property rules for pharmaceuticals) would only make things worse.
Whether global (WTO), plurilateral, regional or bilateral, no matter what form, the legitimacy of any agreement will be questioned so long as the process: a) shuts out public interest voices while including corporate lobbyists in secretive consultations; b) fails to acknowledge commitments established by the Paris Agreement on climate, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and other environmental and human rights accords; and c) includes unaccountable tribunals (ISDS) that prioritize the interests of investors and transnational corporations.
Annie Leonard is the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, where she began her career in 1988. Her film, The Story of Stuff, blossomed into The Story of Stuff Project, which works to empower people around the globe to fight for a more sustainable and just future. Leonard currently serves on the boards of Wallace Global Fund, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Public Citizen, and the Democracy Initiative, and has previously served on the boards of the Grassroots Recycling Network, GAIA, the Environmental Health Fund, Global Greengrants India, Greenpeace India, and the International Forum on Globalization.
Seattle viewed with the benefit of hindsight can be considered to be a first victorious battle against the transnational corporate agenda in the WTO. It was made possible by a convergence between the demands of an incipient but very active transnational citizens’ movement and the resistance displayed by a majority of the governments in underdeveloped countries.
Though apparently a social movement of organizations with very diverse profiles and different experiences, as well as sometimes divergent demands, it nonetheless had a binding glue in the phrase “Fair trade, not free trade.” Ecological demands symbolized by turtles, dolphins and forests amounted to an explicit and systemic rejection of the WTO: “No WTO,” “Power to the people,” “Global Resistance.” These and many more slogans showed that we all fit in as part of the protest.
It was a victorious battle, which made visible on a worldwide scale the refusal to buy in to neoliberal policy, with its embedded ideological messaging, while rejecting the structure of the WTO as a global institution. This struggle made evident the political possibility that mass mobilization, despite the brutal police repression that even affected government representatives, could cause the failure of the official summit. It was a one battle in a long war that is not over.
Even though international groups were in close contact with local organizers, we could not have anticipated what proved to be a determining political co-factor, that being the strength of the intergovernmental contradictions and the potential for resistance by underdeveloped countries. These countries, inside the WTO meetings, were aware of the negative impact stemming from the official “agreed upon” rules; the noncompliance by rich countries (the U.S. and EU) to the prior commitments of no agricultural subsidies, no protectionist measures or unilateral sanctions; and the resistance mounted against going ahead as is with the pending issues of trade rather than a development agenda.
We did not foresee, nor could we have guessed, the great impact that the unusual growth in academic and intellectual criticism focused on neoliberal political/ideological dogmas—as reflected in the multilateral and regional agencies of the UN system, and even in the mainstream media—would have. Although we knew about and fought against NAFTA’s neoliberal agenda, and had in the months preceding Seattle succeeded in stopping the other major part of the corporate pincer, the MIA, most in the social movement did not seem to anticipate either the proliferation of parallel bilateral and regional agreements, or the so-called plurilateral agreements, all of them tactical maneuvers in the service of constructing a global corporate agenda.
Despite being aware of the importance of the need for the social movement to act in unison at a global level while simultaneously working to build itself and expand, we did not grasp the complexity in needing to address global as well as regional diversity in political and ideological experience. Which, it turns out, was a necessary factor in being effective at neutralizing or overcoming the transnational agenda over the subsequent two decades.
Traditional multilateral, global or regional institutions including the WTO have displayed different variants of dysfunctionality in responding effectively to the crisis brought on by the current neoliberal and transnational capitalist model. Here we are speaking in terms of geopolitical, socioeconomic/financial, environmental, global, regional or national crises, as well as about calls for change demanded by the majority of social actors, and even by the interests of capital and its transnational class.
Trump, his trade representative Lighthizer, and some other U.S. lawmakers have been working with the European Union and Japan to pressure the WTO and other institutions to unilaterally break the fundamental rules found in international agreements and treaties.
In the WTO, using China, Mexico and other countries as a pretext, those actors aim to end the fundamental principle of recognizing the diversity of development represented by common agreements with differentiated responsibilities.
The future of the WTO falls in between, on the one hand, the geopolitical clash between a declining block that falls back to false nationalism and an authoritarian and imperial unilateralism—one that seeks to destroy the principle of negotiation, agreement and multilateral action—and, on the other hand, the new and old blocks made up by the majority of underdeveloped countries working to maintain the advantages of multilateral trade regulations.
While the ongoing strategy undertaken by the old empires and by transnational interests is and will continue to be to pressure, to threaten, and to punish, this approach is being increasingly resisted. The enormous challenge to be met by underdeveloped nations and their allies in furthering a winning formula for a new global arrangement can be made possible only if the emerging policies are based on real support flowing from a new agenda built by the social sectors through collective action, and by using the new global instruments of communication, co-ordination and mutual support.
Alejandro Villamar Calderón is a Mexican social policy analyst and activist with a degree in biology and a PhD in development policies. A former union leader and retired professor, he also worked for 16 years as a national parliamentary advisor. He is a founding member of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC), and the author and co-author of numerous trinational and national analyses of NAFTA and other regional and bilateral trade and investment treaties.
"The militarized police presence in Seattle
was shocking to many, but it became the
norm for future trade negotiations."
- Annahid Dashtgard
We were right about the increasing handover of power from elected governments to corporate hands. We’re seeing this now in the active denial of the climate crisis by governments (in Ontario, the U.S., etc.) that are able to remain legitimate somehow despite pandering to business interests over the health of our society and its future occupants.
Overall, there is more general public distrust of corporate interests because of Seattle, but the movement got cut off at the knees by the 9-11 “terrorist” conversation, before we had the chance to really protect key democratic rights from encroaching corporate capitalism.
As a Western democratic movement, we failed to strategize around the pushback of state powers. The escalating police response at civil protests was something many, especially younger activists (including myself!), were unprepared for. It was traumatizing, and after 9-11 we lost all focus and ability to push back.
In the activist world, we also didn’t pay enough attention to relationship as a strategy. We recreated the pecking order that exists in society, except in activist circles it was about how sharp one’s critique is of capitalism or patriarchy, rather than how well-dressed one is. Same beast, different clothes. As a younger activist, I lost faith that if we were to inherit the reins of power that we would do things differently…. We didn’t grapple with how to navigate power in gentler, more humane, more psychologically sophisticated ways, and this was also part of the movement’s undoing.
We need to rebuild collective power structures. But rather than just a single movement focused on a trade organization like the WTO, we need to link many smaller, disparate movements together. The anti-corporate globalization movement professed to be representative of all levels of society, but the reality is that it was overwhelmingly white people, driven by middle-class young activists from academic backgrounds.
The question is, how do we push back against increasing corporate hegemonic powers by linking Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, the environmental movement and migrant justice, for example? Part of the answer lies in change-makers doing more inner work to remain humble enough to remember that not a single one of us, nor a single movement, has the power to recreate the future we all dream of. We need to do it together, through relationship, one small victory at a time. I write about much of this in my new memoir, Breaking the Ocean.
The reality is that we need each other, and we have to fight to stay connected. Because the core impact of oppression is the breakdown of relationship—and because of this, our ability to have widespread impact.
Annahid Dashtgard (MEd) is a renowned author, change-maker and co-founder of Anima Leadership, an international consulting company specializing in issues of diversity and inclusion. Previously she was a leader in the economic globalization movement, responsible for several national political campaigns and frequently referred to as one of the top activists to watch in the 1990s. Her first book, Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation, was published by House of Anansi this August. Dashtgard lives in Toronto with her partner and two children.
There is no question that we got a bunch of things right! First, I think this was one of the most visible expressions of a broad intersectional movement that demonstrated the inextricable relationship between social inequity and ecological erosion—that they share root causes and common solutions—and that corporate concentration, deregulation, privatization, enclosure and militarism must be confronted by a broad alliance of diverse forces.
I think we were also right to recognize that our outside actions could and should give support to forces on the inside to take bolder action, including many of the Southern states. I want to be clear that intersectional politics and analysis greatly pre-date this moment, of course, and were embodied by the environmental justice movement, Indigenous rights and sovereignty movements and radical feminist and racial justice movements. But I do think this was an important moment to visibly express that politic in a mass mobilization. I also think that after 9-11, the shift from anti-globalization to anti-war as the container for a global uprising against corporatism and militarism was very important.
I think we did not have a clear enough understanding of the role of technology in enabling corporate concentration and the destruction of living systems and life-ways. I think the rapid development of certain technologies, the role of these technologies as new platforms of corporate control and the ways in which they would fundamentally alter the nature of the struggle is something most of us missed at the time. I think we knew that the WTO was not going to be the end in and of itself, but I don’t think we were ready for the shift from globalization/poverty-alleviation to climate (UNFCCC) as the container for a corporate agenda.
One of the biggest challenges, I think, was that we didn’t necessarily have a way to take the momentum from mobilization and turn it into stronger organizing. We didn’t necessarily have the infrastructure to capture the excitement and energy and channel it toward the hard and important work of everyday organizing.
With respect to the future, the endless frontiers of extractivism demanded by capitalism have managed to infringe upon every aspect of our lives and the living world. However, the limits of a finite system will inevitably lead to a contraction and collapse. This is not something to necessarily celebrate. Collapse sucks. And I while I see new forms of organizing emerging to help communities build resilience and the capacity to navigate the collapse, I think we have to put much more energy in that direction.
We have to focus on living into the world we need—the daily practice of self-governance and meeting peoples’ needs. We have to focus on disrupting ever expanding enclosures, particularly those enabled by finance and technology, by creating new commons—of land and capital in particular.
Gopal Dayaneni is a co-founder of the Oakland, California–based Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project, a founding member of the Climate Justice Alliance, and currently supports movement-building organizations through his work with the alliance, ETC Group, and the Center for Story-based Strategy. Gopal teaches in the urban sustainability program at Antioch University in Los Angeles, where he was the first Climate Justice Fellow (2014–2016), and is a trainer with The Ruckus Society. He lives in Oakland in an intentional, multi-generational community of nine adults, eight children—including two of his own—and a bunch of chickens.