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BATTLE IN SEATTLE:
THIRD WTO MINISTERIAL MEETINGS
matter where one stands on the meaning of the term globalization, the
world has indeed become smaller in the sense that international
interactions are more frequent, have greater importance for economic
prosperity, and link local communities to the broader international
environment in ways that previous generations could only begin to
imagine. While electronic
media and telecommunications have dramatically increased, face-to-face
meetings remain an indispensable element in international negotiations. In the fields of trade, economic relations, and business,
international meetings remain an essential element in “sealing the
For international organizations, major meetings become focusing
events, providing a goal date by which certain milestones, commitments
or accomplishments can be fulfilled.
Successful international meetings have become one of the key
features of globalization in recent years and a significant aspect of
what John Meyer and others call the “world system.”
Thus the Seattle WTO case is an interesting and important case in
understanding the changing dynamics of international negotiations in an
increasingly interdependent world. The events in Seattle can be seen as an important milestone
in the evolution of international meetings.
High level negotiations behind closed doors used to make make
news after the results were announced in a joint communiqué. With the WTO meetings in Seattle, international meetings have
become a focal point for protest and direct action for a wide range of
grassroots organizations to express dissent.
This means that meeting planners need to plan for not only the
meetings themselves, but also the direct action in the streets that are
likely to take place.
Host cities hope to gain greater
international recognition, attract new investors and businesses, and
generate short-term income for the local economy.
Recent scandals surrounding bids to host the Olympics are just
one indicator of the often fierce competition among metropolises around
the world to win the right to host a major international event.
But important lessons should also be drawn from the 1999 World
Trade Organization meetings in Seattle.
What went wrong, how local officials and community leaders failed
not only to anticipate but also to respond to the protests and violence
can offer important lessons for other communities seeking to capitalize
on the growing demand for international congresses and conferences.
From the perspective of the organization holding the meeting,
such as the WTO in this case, the meeting is intended to move ahead with
the organization’s agenda. As
the Third WTO Ministerial demonstrated, a contentious and crowded agenda
is all the more easily derailed when protesters manage to cut short the
meeting time and contribute a general atmosphere of tension in the
streets outside the meeting venue.
The sea change in international conference millieu that has
occurred since Seattle means that international organizations will have
to pay even greater attention to laying the groundwork for agreement
before the actual meetings occur.
A failed meeting can have lasting consequences for the
organization’s agenda. The “Battle in Seattle” immediately focused national and
international attention on the WTO. The attentive public now knows that
the WTO exists. TV coverage showing protesters in armed combat with
police are now strongly associated with the organization itself, even if
the protests did not accurately reflect the content or intent of the WTO
In the aftermath of the violence in their city, the local
community and the Seattle City Council demanded answers to the critical
questions of how this came to pass and who should be held responsible.
The costs to Seattle and the region -- both financial and
political -- were considerable. As
a consequence, several different investigations were conducted and the
resulting reports provide a rich source of documentation concerning what
happened, when, and who was involved.
The extensive documentation of the Seattle WTO meetings offers
students and policy practitioners a rich basis for examining what
happened and why. This set
of case materials is specifically designed to help draw appropriate
lessons from the Seattle WTO. Along
with the three-part case study for use in classroom and training
settings, we provide an extensive list of references and other sources
(Internet, video, books and articles, news media, etc.) so that the
teacher can tailor the use of this case for a variety of purposes.
In 1995, the World Trade Organization became the institutional
successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) has
emerged as the leading forum for negotiating liberalization of the world
trading system. The
Ministerial Conference which meets at least once every two years is the
highest level decision-making body in the WTO and it met for the first
time in Singapore in 1996. The
first ministerial meeting since the GATT became the WTO was widely
considered a success. The
government of Singapore receive kudos from several delegations on its
smooth handling of all organizational aspects of the meetings.
Not until second Ministerial Conference in Geneva in 1998, did
protesters focus on the WTO to voice concerns about the impact of
globalization and the unimpeded pursuit of free trade.
While there was relatively little international news coverage of
the protests in Geneva, the Wall Street Journal reported that
“thousands of protesters, ranging from farmers to Zapatistas and
loosely gathered under the banner of People’s Action against the WTO
summit, set cars on fire, attacked fast-food restaurants and sprayed
graffiti on bank windows.”
Their concerns included environmental degradation, human rights,
cultural imperialism, the exploitation of workers and the protection of
labor rights, to name just a few. But other events of the day -- the imminent nuclear test by
Pakistan, Suharto’s crumbling rule in Indonesia -- overshadowed the
WTO meetings in the world press.
The Seattle WTO Ministerial meetings were a double failure.
Seattle leaders had hoped that the meetings would serve to
enhance the region’s reputation as an international crossroads.
Instead they were left with a hefty bill and damaged credibility.
For the WTO, the meetings did not advance the agenda to
strengthen the global trading system and launch a new round of trade
to one observer,
For the first time in 57 years of trade
liberalisation talks, a ministerial meeting ended without an approved
statement by the ministers. A
former secretary-general of the Commonwealth called the Seattle meeting
the worst organised international conference he had attended in 40 years
of public life.
What went wrong? Could
the situation that erupted in Seattle have been anticipated?
What could and should future meeting planners learn from the
Seattle experience? For the
U.S. government, what lessons can be learned about the appropriate role
of the federal government in helping to organize, finance, and carry out
such meetings? For the WTO, what aspects of the conventional meeting support
that had served GATT (and subsequently the WTO first and second
ministerial meetings) so well in the past were inadequate in Seattle?
How much and what kind of support does the WTO provide to host
cities? Is this adequate?
OF THE CASE
This case has three segments, with two decision nodes for student
analysis and recommendations. The
first part will address the planning and preparation for the WTO
meetings. At the end of the
first segment, students will be asked to assess the strengths and
weaknesses of the planning process.
What elements have been well-considered?
Which aspects required greater attention or a different approach?
The second segment then addresses the period of crisis management
during the week of the WTO meetings.
This segment allows students to analyze politics of
decision-making during a crisis situation where time is of the essence
and multiple levels of authority are involved.
Students will be asked to devise a plan for dealing with the
situation as of midmorning on Tuesday, November 30.
The third segment will present what city officials actually did
during the crisis as well as the political fallout from those decisions.
This will give students the chance to discuss and debate the
alternative approaches that police and city officials might have taken
and what the likely consequences of those alternatives would have been. They will also be presented with the actual fallout for
analysis and discussion.
Since much of the documentation for this case is available
on-line, the teacher’s guide includes many electronic sources that can
be used to supplement the case materials.
Planning and Preparation
This part of the case will include a brief general presentation
of how Seattle was selected to host the WTO ministerial meetings.
In addition, the goals, interests, and expected costs and
benefits to each of the key actors will be presented.
The focus will then be on how city officials and others organized
the planning process, who was involved, what issues were raised, where
they focused their efforts, how much autonomy various key actors (e.g.,
the assistant police chief in charge, the mayor, etc.) had with respect
to key decisions in the planning process.
In particular, this section will require students to assess the
planning process and make recommendations about:
the process unfolded;
well key participants sought out and processes relevant information in
the planning process;
extent to which key planners prepared for various contingencies; and
envisioned organization of key members of the event coordination team,
including how communications and decisions would be handled both for
routine as well as extraordinary developments.
For the first part of the case (discussion and memo), students
will be analyzing the effectiveness and appropriateness of what Seattle
hosts had in place by September 10.
Among the questions they should consider are the following:
these plans workable, as far as could be reasonably foreseen?
there important pieces of information that were either not collected or
not adequately taken into consideration?
might planners have done differently in anticipation of the potential
widespread protest actions outside the convention center?
U.S. federal government support adequate?
What is the appropriate role of the federal government in
planning, organizing, implementing, and funding international meetings,
especially of international intergovernmental bodies such as the WTO?
is the appropriate role of the WTO secretariat in the planning and
questions should cities ask -- of the organization (i.e., in this case
the WTO)? of their national government?
of other levels of government (here, the State of Washington)?
of adjacent communities?
there be Memoranda of Understanding between various entities involved in
hosting an international meeting? If
so, which ones and with what purpose?
Putting the Plan into Action & Crisis Management
Much of the post-hoc criticism of the period immediately
preceding and during the actual WTO meetings has focused on the failure
of public officials (both law enforcement authorities and political
leadership) to recognize and respond appropriately to various signals
that trouble was brewing and that the protest actions might indeed
overwhelm the resources allocated for crowd control, access to and from
the convention center, and delegate security.
Furthermore, others suggest, the planning process itself may have
contributed to a sense of complacency about warning signs that the
protest might become a major disruption.
Students may consider not only how failures in the planning
process contributed to the chaos, but also how the protests exacerbated
the difficulties faced by negotiators inside the conference venue.
This second part of the case can be assessed from several
different perspectives. Students asked to advise Mayor Schell in assessing the
situation as the opening session of the Third Ministerial is about to be
cancelled should consider the following questions.
he also cancel the permit granted to the U.S. labor movement to hold a
major march through the downtown area?
are his alternatives?
are the political costs associated with each of these alternatives?
asked to advise Charlene Barshefsky, USTR and chair of the Third
Ministerial should respond to the following questions.
factors does she need to take into account?
are her alternatives and concerns in the face of this disruption of the
are the likely consequences of these alternatives?
can the U.S. achieve its trade policy aims given the circumstances?
should also reflect on the implications of the situation at that moment
for the WTO itself and the broader agenda of furthering a rule-based
international trade system.
might be done at this point to rescue the Seattle Ministerial
there a plausible approach that might allow for the adoption of a joint
declaration? What would
this require? Suggest a
draft statement that might have a chance of adoption.
Aftermath & Consequences
In the wake of the WTO meetings, the mayor’s political
influence and leadership position was adversely affected. The mayor and
police chief bore the brunt of the criticism for the crisis.
Schell, previously known as the “idea-a-minute” mayor, lost
considerable political clout for having presided over the fiasco.
Chief of Police Norm Stamper announced his early retirement, and
an interim chief was appointed while a large-scale, participatory
process to select a successor was launched.
The central theme of public debate since the meetings has been on
concerns that arise are now funnelled through the “what have we
learned” and “how does this incident demonstrate a
continuation practices that remain unchecked even after the WTO debacle.
The epilogue to this case study provides the basis of a
discussion and assessment of the consequences of these events both for
Seattle and for the WTO.
the end of the third segment, students should reflect on the lessons
that should be learned by cities hosting international meetings where
globalization issues are on the agenda based on the Seattle experience.
How might the WTO and other international organization and
intergovernmental meeting planning groups do a better job of managing
the logisitcs of high profile meetings? What aspects of the Seattle Ministerial would have created
difficulties even if there had been no protest and how might these have
been better addressed?
for the research and production of this case has been generously
provided The Institute for Trade & Commercial Diplomacy, Inc.
The author wishes to thank Geza Feketekuty, Laura Strohm,
John Boerer, and Vicki Golich for their assistance in developing
this teaching case.
John W. Meyer and Michael T. Hannan, eds., National Development
and the World System: Educational,
Economic, and Political Change, 1950-1970 (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1979); and Martha Finnemore, National
Interests in International Society (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1996).
Bhushan Bahree, “As WTO Marks 50th Birthday, Event Attracts
Opponents to Globalization,” Wall Street Journal (May 18,
1998), p. B7A.
Ravi Kanth, “Why Seattle Talks Failed,” Business Times
(Singapore) (December 16, 1999), p. 3.