President Clinton was bowing to the needs of electoral politics when he said the World Trade Organisation should look at the possibility of sanctions against countries that do not meet certain minimum standards, including a ban on the use of child labour. Al Gore, his Vice-President, needs money and support from the unions for his presidential bid. Through his intervention, Mr Clinton threatened the outcome of the whole meeting as developing countries angrily saw through the veil of concern to the cynical protectionist politics.
The sensible compromise is the one put forward by Britain, which establishes a working group involving the WTO and the International Labour Organisation to look at this vexed question of labour standards. Child labour is abhorrent, there is no doubt about it. But to restrict exports from certain countries for that reason would achieve nothing more than punishing them for their poverty, and punishing their poorest people most heavily.
The entanglement of the WTO in the labour standards question raises several important points, however. One is the alarming degree of ignorance of economics in public debate. Politicians are among the biggest culprits. Few of them have bothered to insist this week that the freedom to exchange goods makes for efficient economies, that trade is good for growth, and that growth is good for the environment because countries need to put pov-erty behind them in order to care. Or that globalisation, by integrating these countries into the world economy, can be the strongest force for democracy and labour rights.
To the charge that institutions such as the WTO and International Monetary Fund are not representing the interests of developing countries, the correct response would be to reassess the way the system of international economic governance is working. Which organisations are insufficiently transparent, badly managed or ineffective?
The forward march of globalisation is certainly putting demands on the international bureaucracies that they find hard to meet. Their task is made all the harder by the fact that politicians have simply not thought very much about how to represent and balance national interests in a multilateral world. In the case of free trade, national interests need not conflict, although sectional ones may do so. Freer access to US markets for Third- World textiles producers would damage the interests of US unions, but consumers everywhere would benefit.
The fact that trade is today's issue is beside the point for the Generation X protesters, though. Yesterday's campaign was the IMF and Third-World debt; today's is the WTO and labour standards; tomorrow's will be an attack on another international organisation. Like their parents in the Sixties, they are united in opposing the Establishment, but disunited in deciding what to put in its place.