Editorial: GATTocrisy

MORE THAN THE NORMAL POLITICAL EXAGGERATION and bombast has characterized the Clinton administration's effort to ram the new version of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) through Congress.

The administration's effort to secure rapid congressional approval of the trade pact has been marked by the kind of distortion, deception and double-talk usually reserved for national security matters.

The purpose of these lies is clear: to cloud the debate on Capitol Hill, to distract the media and to confuse the public. And since criticisms of the new GATT's potential intrusions into U.S. sovereignty are the arguments that have resonated with the most clarity for members of Congress and the public, it is in this area where administration claims have been most fantastic.

U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and his minions present a series of tall tales. First, they claim that the United States should not fear for its sovereignty in the new GATT, because the World Trade Organization (WTO) which would be created by the new GATT would operate pretty much like the old GATT. Kantor and company fail to point out that the WTO would maintain a "legal personality" like the United Nations, with substantially more political power than the current GATT. They also ignore the fact that the WTO would operate a heavy-handed dispute settlement process that would have the power to authorize countries to impose trade fines and sanctions on the United States or other nations.

At least, Kantor responds, supermajority votes would be required before the WTO could change its own rules and impose them on the United States. In the current GATT system, Kantor says, only a standard majority is required - and therefore the new GATT is "much more protective of U.S. sovereignty" than the old. But in making this claim, Kantor ignores the fact - which he emphasizes in other contexts - that the current GATT does not run by its voting rules. The last GATT vote, in fact, was 1959. The current GATT system does operate by consensus, meaning the United States and every other nation maintains a de facto veto.

In the context of the dispute settlement process (the means by which a country can challenge another nation's law as violative of GATT rules), the situation is even worse. Under the new GATT, the United States and other countries lose their current veto rights over the imposition of trade sanctions or fines against countries found to be violating GATT rules. And these perpetual sanctions would be automatic, unless all GATT member nations - including the country which brought an initial challenge - unanimously agreed to waive them.

As a final line of defense, Kantor and his cronies claim decisions issued by the WTO would have no effect on U.S. law (even as they claim the WTO would be a powerful means to pry open other countries' markets). Only Congress can change U.S. laws, they say. While it is certainly true that only Congress can change domestic laws, the WTO could force Congress into a cruel choice: repeal a law found to violate GATT rules, or pay tribute (in the form of fines or sanctions levied against the United States) to maintain it. Submitting to this choice would represent a staggering erosion of sovereignty.

When all of the administration's inaccuracies and misstatements are corrected, when the layers of deception are stripped away, one argument does remain. It is a cynical, realpolitik argument: other countries will not use the WTO against the United States, because they will fear angering the world's greatest economic power.

Representative Robert Matsui, D-California, the administration's GATT point person in Congress, put the argument crudely, but more honestly than the administration would have countenanced from one of its own. The World Trade Organization "does not affect [U.S.] sovereignty one bit," he told the L.A. Times. "We can go our own way," he said. "The only sanction is we'd be kicked out of the WTO, and no one is going to kick us out."

 This arrogant and imperialist argument - that the United States will simply slight its international obligations when it so chooses - is reprehensible.

It is also mistaken. The WTO - with its automatic imposition of perpetual sanctions or fines against domestic laws found to violate GATT rules - would give all countries enormous leverage over the internal laws of the United States, quite apart from the threat of ousting the United States from the organization. And other countries are likely to exercise it against U.S. health, safety and environmental protections. Since 1980 and the adoption of GATT rules covering "non-tariff trade barriers" (an umbrella term referring to labor, environment, health, safety and other product standards), foreign countries have brought more challenges against the United States than the United States has brought against other nations.

Matsui is right about one thing. To see who will win and lose from the new GATT, it is appropriate to undertake a realpolitik analysis. Such an analysis suggests that approving the new GATT and joining the WTO would require a substantial sacrifice of U.S. sovereignty, a subordination of domestic health, safety and environmental laws to multinational commercial interests. It can also be expected that the United States, operating at the behest of its multinational corporations, would use the new machinery ruthlessly against foreign countries' domestic laws and regulations.

In other words, the new GATT would constitute yet another mallet with which multinational corporations of all nationalities could bludgeon citizens across the globe.