Four days, five working groups and 135 countries -- the failure of the World Trade Organization's Seattle talks really isn't all that surprising.

What no one could expect was the organic fusing of labor and environmental interests and the sometimes brutal overreaction of the Seattle police department. In the end, the breakdown was a dramatic showcase for the discrepancies between President Clinton's personal agenda and U.S. trade negotiators, between rich nations and poor nations, and between the U.S. and its European trading partners.

While nobody -- with the exception of some obviously overexuberant protestors -- believes the move toward free trade has reversed itself, the open global economy some optimistic Wall-Street types envision could be a bit farther off.

"There's no immediate consequence" to the talks breakdown, says Tom Gallagher, senior managing director at the International Strategy & Investment Group. "But it raises a lot of questions about the course of future talks. You now have stalemate. That's not the worst thing in the world. The question is, will the forces that produced stalemate end up producing higher trade barriers?"

The talks were to have concluded Friday with a formal launch of a three-year round of trade liberalization negotiations. The march toward a world of free trade we hear so much about would proudly carry on. Instead the WTO will take a "timeout," according to U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, to work through the many hurdles that plagued the Seattle talks even before they began.

"The complexity and novelty of the issues strained the collective capacity of delegations to make decisions," she said at the closing press conference. "Governments were just not willing to take the leap."

Of course not. They were too busy protecting turf.

The French protected their farms, the Japanese argued against U.S. antidumping measures, and developing countries balked at the richer nations controlling the agenda. Throughout the talks, smaller nations held impromptu press conferences claiming they were shut out of secret negotiations and that their demands, although heard, were overlooked in the final negotiations. There was little compromise and much embarrassment.

WTO negotiations are now scheduled to resume in Geneva in January, but only those issues from the built-in agenda under provisions from the 1994 Uruguay Round will be addressed. The thorny issues relating to the environment and labor rights will not be addressed as yet. No matter, the January talks might also break down if the perennial debate over agriculture subsidies is not settled, which means that for at least another season the world will probably be dealing with an emboldened Jose Bove, the French sheep farmer who single-handedly battled the McDonaldization of France.

The European Union refuses to eliminate its infamous farming export subsidies. The U.S. insists on its "emergency" farm loans, which can last for years and provide farmers money for not farming particular crops. Early on the Seattle talks, EU negotiators agreed to discuss "substantial and progressive" reductions in farm aid in exchange for a U.S. understanding that some support helped the environment -- a pet issue for the Clinton administration -- and for a traditional way of life. All looked good -- with delegates working without sleep and offering several text revisions -- until the final moments when French farmers protesting, as they are wont to do, split the European votes.

With a bit of misguided foresight, Barshefsky had threatened, but did not use, a more exclusive process of negotiation that would have consisted of a much smaller body of delegates chosen by the WTO management group if the talks ended in a deadlock. Such an action would have added to already fiery feelings of discrimination within the organization. It would have also given the 30,000 street protesters yet another reason to call for a reformation or dismantling of the WTO.

Beyond raising public awareness about the organization and the complexity of international trade issues, the protests -- now fully fueled -- threaten the Congressional passage of the U.S. trade deal with China.

Despite the breakdown of the Seattle talks, Commerce Secretary William Daley, remained optimistic, telling CBS, "Eventually, they will be successful and we will have a chance to sell more products."

That appears to be the Washington consensus. The protests will come to naught; globalization happens. It's beginning to sound a little smug.

If you liked this article you might like

Spanish Conglomerates Conquer Latin American Markets

Spanish Conglomerates Conquer Latin American Markets

Latin America Gears Up for an E-Tailing Boom

Latin America Gears Up for an E-Tailing Boom

Thinking Locally at Latin America.com

Thinking Locally at Latin America.com

The Dot-Com El Dorado

The Dot-Com El Dorado

In Latin America, No Es 1994

In Latin America, No Es 1994