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 You are in: Special Report: 1999: 11: 99: Battle for Free Trade
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Sunday, 28 November, 1999, 13:16 GMT
Global hopes, global fears
Protesters abseiling in Seattle to fight world trade

As the next world trade round gets under way in Seattle, the BBC's Rodney Smith wonders whether everybody will benefit or whether it's a case of the big boys ganging up against the little ones.

World trade: Heavyweight boxers fighting against bantamweight.
Rodney Smith
It is probably fair to say that none hope for so much from the Seattle round of the world trade talks as big business. More than any other group, this has everything to gain and nothing to lose.

The battle for free trade
If trade liberalisation has brought huge advantages to billions of people, and it has, it is has done so through the tools of trade, companies - manufacturers, bankers, traders of all kinds. Without them there would be no significant trade, liberal or otherwise.

Rodney Smith
Big business is under more sustained attack now than at any time over the last two decades. Trade liberalisation and the global market are becoming dirty words as literate and articulate critics mass against the concept and the tools of the concept.

As in most arguments, many have a point.

If you are a heavyweight boxer, boxing rules require you to fight against another heavyweight. You wouldn't expect to fight against a bantamweight.

Many small companies, and companies in the developing world which do not have the resources available to the big multinationals, feel that they are the bantamweights in the trade liberalisation contest. So are their governments, who fear being thrashed if they allow the rules to change.

Yet all the evidence is that trade liberalisation so far has fostered world growth on a scale that post-War reconstructionist politicians hardly could have dreamed of.

The WTO has time on its side.
Rodney Smith
It is no accident either that so much big business is America. The huge American market offers legendary economies of scale. The US internal market is also unusually unfettered, fostered by the free capitalist spirit and practice for which American investors are famous.

But American corporations are inclined, as are most big multinationals of whatever nationality, to look back to home when not on domestic soil, and this can make them appear arrogant and even conquistadorial.

Around the world, the WTO has been the focus of demonstrations, as here at WTO headquarters in Geneva
Some probably are. All would undoubtedly benefit from any enhanced chance to compete in farm and food markets not their own.

No one expects these WTO negotiations to be over quickly - in the first instance, they are supposed to last three years. But the previous negotiations, under the WTO predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Uruguay Round, started in 1986 and didn't conclude until 1994. Most signatories are still - sometimes reluctantly - implementing agreements settled then.

The previous Tokyo Round lasted seven years. Both rounds brought benefits for many, but inevitably, not all. There may be much wrong with the aims of the Seattle Round, not that those are settled yet, but the WTO has one huge advantage that will not always be available to the armies of protestors expected in Seattle - whatever else, it has time on its side.

And, like the demonstrators, big business may just have to wait for results as well.

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