This week's World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in the American city, which runs from tomorrow until Friday, is the largest ever, with more than 3,000 delegates from 135 countries expected. But the gathering is also being touted as the greatest outpouring of public protest in the United States since the anti-Vietnam movement in the late 1960s. It is attracting a cast of tens of thousands: from international bureaucrats and steelworkers to downtrodden Bangladeshi women.
The ministers will be hoping to narrow their differences over such issues as farm subsidies, but are under pressure from farmers who see freer trade as a threat. So far, the ministers have been hard-pressed to agree on an agenda for the new round, which aims to reduce tariffs and other trade barriers.
But Gene Sperling, the White House economic adviser, was upbeat. "The differences that exist now will get ironed out in the late-hour negotiations," he said yesterday. Britain is trying to force development issues up the agenda. Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, called in a letter to Mike Moore, director general of the WTO, for a massive increase in funding to help developing countries become properly represented at the organisation. The WTO has come under criticism for its unfairness towards poorer members, which cannot match the huge teams of lawyers and officials the US and EU have at its Geneva headquarters. And the British Government has been at the forefront of a push to ensure trade rules help developing countries.
While the WTO would like to paint itself as the instrument of greater global affluence, its detractors believe it poses a grave threat to democratic accountability by only representing the interests of multinational corporations.
The meeting itself promises to be somewhat arcane, setting the agenda for the trade talks, and so determining the framework for several years' worth of policy-making. Far more headline-grabbing will be the antics of the protesters, which will culminate in a street demonstration tomorrow. Aside from the official anti-WTO demonstrations, there will be a panoply of civil disobedience initiatives that has as its goal nothing less than the shut-down of the entire trade show. There will be abseilers scaling buildings and unfurling banners and union workers dumping cheap Asian steel into the city's harbour.
The protesters know that the success of their initiatives could make a real difference to future world trade policy. President Bill Clinton, among others, has made known he will be closely assessing the depth of public feeling.