The World Trade Organisation's ministerial meeting will kick off a three- year negotiating round, and whatever protesters and opponents say, it is a critical event. But for the White House, the summit has a certain nightmarish quality What happens when you organise a party and no one comes - except the one person that you really, really do not want to meet?
President Bill Clinton will attend the summit, and the White House has made anxious calls to try to persuade officials in other countries that other foreign leaders should be there. But everyone has refused, citing other commitments. White House staff spoke with British officials to see if Tony Blair might be persuaded to come, but the Prime Minister has other things to do. They tried to get the heads of the major trade blocs - the EU, Mercosur and Asean - to attend, but that did not work either.
One foreign leader, however, may well be there next week: Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader was last in the US in 1995, when he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly, but he has never been to the West Coast as president. Cuba is a member of the WTO like any other country, and in the same way that Mr Castro can pitch up at the United Nations, it seems, he is entitled to go to Seattle: the US may not, under international law, deny him a visa.
Perhaps enjoying the frisson that this has sent through the US, the bearded one has yet to decide formally if he is going, but many of the preparations have been made. An advance team has gone to Seattle and a hall has been reserved for a speech at the University of Washington. A pro-Castro group has scheduled a meeting in Seattle, while anti-Castro groups are preparing demonstrations.
"He has not yet decided if he will travel or will not travel to Seattle," a Foreign Ministry spokesman told a news conference on Thursday. But he is wiling away the autumnal moments with some serious reading on trade. If he attends, of course, one of his main arguments will be that free trade means ending American sanctions against Cuba.
The prospect of pro and anti-Cuban demonstrations adds another dimension to what is already set to be a tumultuous week. Tens of thousands of demonstrators are expected to turn out, including the American left, the isolationist right, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, steelworkers, farmers and the ever-present students. The delegations are struggling not just to get their negotiating positions straight but to co-ordinate security arrangements.
The European Union is said to have hired its own security force for the event, instantly nicknamed "Prodi's Plod". Its delegation includes dozens of negotiators, members of the European parliament and representatives of non-governmental organisations, a sign of the higher priority that will be put on including views from outside government.
The city itself is horrified at the prospect of the circus coming to town. The Seattle Times asked readers what they thought, and "the sentiment against hosting the meeting was overwhelming. Some residents vowed to join the protests; others said they fear demonstrations will get out of control".
FOR AND AGAINST - THE VITAL QUESTIONS
Q: Why is it important the WTO summit succeeds?
A: Supporters of the WTO argue that it boosts free trade, and that is good for everyone. It cuts costs, creates jobs and guarantees a free flow of goods, services and ideas. They say protectionism in the 1930s helped to create the tensions that led to war.
Its backers say that it also helps developing countries get into closed Western markets, and that it allows poor nations to gain access to technology, employment and a higher standard of living.
In this round of talks, which will last three years, they want to adjust the system to give more weight to the environment and labour standards, while creating rules that will help trade in the new sectors of the economy, such as e-commerce. The summit should also lead to a reduction in barriers to trade in manufactured goods and agriculture.
Q: Why do many people oppose the WTO?
A: Opponents say free trade simply benefits the wealthy and large multinational companies. This summit, they say, pays only lip service to democracy and maintains policies that have promoted globalisation, to the detriment of many.
WTO rules are biased against developing countries, which opponents say have little input into what is a rich man's game. Environmentalists say the WTO puts trade interests ahead of the environment. Many labour unions argue that the jobs created destroy good work in favour of low-paid employment in places where unions are banned or restricted, and where child and prison labour is permitted.
Critics want the WTO to be more democratic, saying that its negotiations take place behind closed doors and exclude the people whose lives are affected.Reuse content