Opinion

Viewpoint

"After devoting more than 30 years to documenting the need for protection of children, animals, workers, and habitat, mostly for small independent and nonprofit news media, I have a file cabinet full of clippings to document my endorsement of William Randolph Hearst's maxim that the purpose of reporting is to Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, print the news, and raise hell. But I also have a raft of questions for the vehement critics of the World Trade Organization, and of North American Free Trade Agreement, which I have been asking frequently for about 10 years -- and although I have received reams of polemic in response, I have not yet received anything that resembles a clearly considered answer. First, how is it that opposition to the WTO and NAFTA comes simultaneously from both the radical left and the radical right? Historically, the left always favored world governments which would supersede national authority and arbitrate disputes. The League of Nations, United Nations, and alternative structures proposed by the former Soviet Bloc, among other such attempted global structures, were traditionally advanced by the left and feared by the right -- until after the fall of the Soviet empire, when for the first time the creation of a successful limited world governmental structure appeared possible. It looks to me as if the biggest objection the left has to the emerging structure is that leftists don't run it. But neither does the right; they're complaining too. Logically, this suggests that the WTO is achieving a balance of interests, whether or not any of the competing partisan factions agree. Second, the WTO and NAFTA agreements both include provisions for enforcement of trade rules which could protect environmental, occupational safety, and human rights standards. Yet instead of seeking to amend existing national laws so that they do the job within the WTO and NAFTA framework, coalitions have formed to try to undo the frameworks which could be used to establish laws of genuinely international application. Why? I am not blind to the political and economic considerations which might make amending national laws to be WTO-compliant an uphill struggle. But if that struggle is not undertaken, we will never have effective international law, and will instead have only an ever more complicated higgledy-piggledy of often contradictory national standards. Third, the complaint is loudly voiced that WTO and NAFTA are not accountable and transparent in their workings. But in this regard, how do they differ from other international treaty agreements, such as NATO, or any of the other United Nations-created treaty organizations? Fourth, the complaint perhaps most vociferously issued about the WTO and NAFTA is that they are undemocratic. But in light of how international treaties have always been negotiated and structured, this is actually a complaint that the WTO and NAFTA are not world governments superseding national governments -- which is precisely the opposite argument to the complaint of the WTO and NAFTA opponents that these treaty agreements are eroding national sovereignty. The United States Constitution, and the constitutions of most if not all other nations, assigns treaty negotiation to the executive branch of government, with ratification required by the Senate, House of Lords, or equivalent representative body. Accordingly, treaty negotiators and members of international treaty enforcement panels are high-level civil servants. They have no power to amend national law, or to do anything else other than upon the explicit instructions of the elected national government which they represent. What they are able to do is make strong recommendations. Introducing an element of direct public input into the WTO and NAFTA proceedings, or into the proceedings of any other international treaty organization, would amount to creating a new level not of civi service, but of government itself. Such democracy would bypass the elected executives and parliamentary representatives of national government. It would also introduce a new mechanism by which minority interests--in this case, minority national interests--might be trampled by a self-serving majority. It may be, nonetheless, that humanity is ready to experiment with some sort of directly elected global governmental body, responsive to the world rather than to national delegations. But that is a totally separate debate from the debate over how the WTO and NAFTA operate. Within the present structure of international law, they can either operate like other treaty organizations or not at all. If one agrees that we should have international structures to facilitate conflict-free trade, just as we have such structures to try to prevent war, then the WTO and NAFTA are the beginnings of such structures. They can be shaped and amended to whatever extent we can persuade our elected representatives that this is a priority, and that they in turn can coax their counterparts from other nations into agreement. One must not forget, however, that trade implies give and take. One must be willing to give in order to get, which includes conceding at times that the national standards presently in place must be amended -- and then getting to work to see to it that the amendments achieve better results at both the national and international levels. Merritt Clifton lives in Clinton."

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