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Talking Trade with World Trade Organization Director-General Mike Moore

January 20, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: New Zealander Mike Moore has had a tumultuous four and a half months as Director-General of the World Trade Organization. In December, he pushed hard for a new round of trade negotiations at the high-profile WTO meeting of ministers in Seattle. But the talks collapsed, setting off a fierce debate about the role of the WTO and the benefits and pitfalls of global free trade.

Outside the meeting, tens of thousands of protesters denounced the WTO for, among other things, trampling on environmental regulations and undermining worker rights. The angry protesters blocked streets and access to the Seattle meeting hall, forcing the cancellation of the opening ceremony. Police responded with tear gas and pepper spray, imposed a downtown curfew and arrested almost 600 people.

There was discord inside the meeting hall as well, and not just from the occasional demonstrators who tussled with security. Ministers from 135 countries had sought to start a new round of talks on reducing trade barriers. Under the WTO, countries agree to abide by the same trading rules. But the ministers clashed on what issues to include in the negotiations. Key sticking points included minimum labor standards, agricultural tariffs, and U.S. anti-dumping laws. Caribbean, African and other less developed nations also complained that industrialized nations like the U.S. had shut them out of negotiations.

SHRIDATH RAMPHAL: This should not be a game about enhancing corporate profits. This should not be a time when big countries, strong countries, the world’s wealthiest countries, are setting about a process designed to enrich themselves.

RAY SUAREZ: Post-Seattle, Moore has been back at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters, and has been busy meeting with ministers in hope of resuscitating the trade talks.

RAY SUAREZ: Mike Moore has served as New Zealand’s trade minister and briefly as prime minister. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MIKE MOORE: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: What are the issues that are hanging over from Seattle that really need attention, that it was hoped or understood would have at least begun to get the attention they need there?

MIKE MOORE, Director-General, WTO: Well, there’s a number of issues. We have what we call the in- built agenda, those things we ought to be talking about anyway. That’s agriculture, that’s services, and a whole series of other areas we need to pay attention to. Electronic commerce — here’s an area that’s booming, jobs are being created — this is a great new period of economic history.

And we’d argue one of the reasons that electronic commerce has been able to accelerate at such a pace and provide such opportunity throughout the world has been the fact that we’ve had agreements on telecommunications, that we’ve had a pause with no tariffs or taxes on electronic commerce.

So all these things need to be addressed. And we have members, of course, who are from poor countries, very poor countries, who have huge difficulties in being able to absorb what’s been decided already of engaging and lifting their own living standards and helping their people. So for the least developed countries and for developing countries, there is something there.

RAY SUAREZ: The Seattle meeting began right after you took office as Director-General. Looking back, and with everything you’ve learned since, do you think the agenda was too ambitious, that you never could have gotten a lot of these things done, even if things had gone better?

MIKE MOORE: Well, I am brilliant in hindsight. You know, I can solve every problem a year later. I think our problems were that we… we were too far apart in many areas. The differences were too great. We needed to do more work in Geneva. It was very difficult for ministers to be… to have in front of them so many brackets.

And the differences were not just North-South, between Europe and America, and we’ve got to narrow those differences before we go back to our ministerial. I’ve talked to 30 or so ministers on the phone since Seattle and met a number, and they do not want to move to another meeting unless we’re much, much closer together.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the weeks after Seattle, some ministers said that they were surprised, looking back, that there had been no blocked meetings before Seattle to sort of get the ducks in a row.

MIKE MOORE: Well, no, that’s not fair. We did have a number of meetings beforehand. But we’re a major organization now. We’ve got over 130 members, but our culture’s based on the old GATT of 30 or so members, and we have institutional difficulties.

But really, we failed because on major issues of substance, we weren’t close enough to give them…let no one say it was a North-South thing only; it was not just that. It was between Europe and the states, agriculture, tariffs.

This is major stuff. This is not a conference where ministers can go along and pass wonderful resolutions of world peace, humanity, and it’s love each other, then go home. Every word that we negotiate is real, and then you are bound by it, so, you know, great issues are stake, and it is difficult.

RAY SUAREZ: But I’m wondering if some of them aren’t mutually exclusive, that really we saw just how difficult it is going to be to get to yes on some of these issues. Crops are either genetically modified or they’re not; the United States can maintain its anti-dumping regime, which makes other nations upset, or it can’t. There’s really no halfway.

MIKE MOORE: Well, no, there is ways in which we can meet each other. If you say there’s no halfway, we’ll never solve these great differences. We have to have a set of words where there’s something in it for everyone. So each country feels like they go home with a bit of a win and can negotiate. I think too– again, hindsight, I didn’t say it at the time, so– is that it is so important for jobs and to assist economies to grow that perhaps we got into a little bit too much detail. We tried to negotiate at Seattle what, in fact, should have been negotiated over a three-year period. And we did that because of the past. We spent seven years in the Uruguay Round.

RAY SUAREZ: And seven years is a long time.

MIKE MOORE: Seven years, yeah. Well, it’s getting there, yeah.

RAY SUAREZ: Are countries ready, or did Seattle show us they’re not yet ready to deal with their national economic sovereignty– give that up or give it up to a wider body in the way that the WTO understands it will?

MIKE MOORE: Well, what we’ve learned is this, isn’t it — that no country can survive and grow without the cooperation of others. You cannot run an airline, you cannot run a tax system, we’re not going to cure AIDS or cancer without the cooperation of others.

And we, I think, in the last 50 years have learnt that we need to cooperate in a multilateral way. The United States is a shining example. Look at you, your economy’s pumping, you have the lowest unemployment rates in 30 years. Everyone’s looking at Americans, saying, “how are you doing it?”

But despite that, despite the enormous advances your country’s made in the last few years, there’s still anxiety, there’s fear about ownership in sovereignty. And behind that too lurks sometimes a sort of dangerous mood of protectionism, isolationism, “my country knows best.” And this comes from small countries.

Hell, we have it in New Zealand. You have it in every country. In Europe, an instinctive “are we losing our culture?” “How can we have an integrated world where countries get on and trade better and trade more jobs, and at the same time keep our language, keep our culture?” And these things, these are issues of great anxiety.

RAY SUAREZ: But when we look at some of the less-developed countries, they have an interest in allowing new, young industries…

MIKE MOORE: I would have thought so.

RAY SUAREZ: …Not to have to face the blast of worldwide competition. That’s why we’re worried about companies being bought outright by other companies.

MIKE MOORE: That’s why you have special deferential treatment for developing countries and the least-developed countries. You know, the least-developed countries account for less than 0.5% of world trade, yet where they have areas of excellence, they’re not allowed to export to the United States or to Europe. In fact, your tariffs in the United States against the poorest countries on the planet, are very, very high. And that’s true of many countries, just not the U.S. And for them, it’s just not trade.

Trade in itself is not going to cure all the world’s evils. We have a member country whose debt repayments are nine times, or up to nine times, more than they spend on health, in the middle of an AIDS epidemic.

So while trade is important, information’s important, education’s important, infrastructure, and this, all these things are part of getting economies to grow, for those who sit at think tanks in Washington who are looking beyond the next ten years, and are thinking of how you get a strong India; how you create more customs for the West; and for North and South, how do we lift living standards; what are we going to do when we’ve got another two billion people on the planet within the next 30 years; how are we going handle doubling, the need to double the production of food in the next couple of years; how science is moving so quickly, the moral and ethical capacity to cope with what science is doing around the corner– these are all issues that don’t belong just to the WTO. I mean, we’re a tiny organization with 500 staff, for heaven’s sake. But there are other institutions.

I was with Kofi Annan — the secretary-general of the United Nations — earlier, and we were talking of there is a feeling of a sort of democratic deficit. That is, sovereign governments own… the people own the governments, the people own countries, but at the same time you’ve got to do airport rights, you’ve got to have patent rights, you’ve got to all do these things which don’t, I think, diminish sovereignty, but enhance it. And I come from a small country, very vulnerable.

I’ve always seen this form of internationalism as protecting the sovereignty of my country, and international institutions run government to government to government by treaties, by arrangements, as advancing the sovereignty of countries, not as a menace to them.

RAY SUAREZ: In the demonstrations in Seattle, we saw the WTO represented as a force, a maligned force in the world. How did it come to be that, and what does the WTO have to do to answer those criticisms?

MIKE MOORE: I think in Seattle and elsewhere, we’re copping the blame for every excess of capitalism, every problem on the planet — no matter… No one protests outside the ILO on labor issues, they come to us; or environmental issues, they’re coming to us. The World Bank and the IMF went through this in the 70’s. It’s one of those things that happens. We’re blamed for every problem in Afghanistan, for heaven’s sake. And at Seattle, you know, it’s more like Woodstock– sincere people, good issues, issues I believe in.

We don’t have the powers people think we have. We don’t want those powers. We don’t want a world government. We have got a mandate on trade. We need to work alongside the other institutions to ensure that trade means more than just business. It means jobs, safer world, better world. And that’s why I wanted this job, and that’s why I intend to do it, and I intend to finish it.

RAY SUAREZ: Mike Moore, good to have you here.

MIKE MOORE: Thank you.