"WTO is Bad!" Battle in Seattle, the Movie

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/02/2008 03:23:00 PM

I have finally gotten around to watching the movie Battle in Seattle (BiS), which dramatizes the titular event that occurred nearly a decade ago. I was a bit apprehensive before watching it as the film's reviews have been rather mixed. Indeed, its average score of 55 is just one point more than the toilet-humor laden Zohan. Given the weightiness of BiS's topic, I was rather expecting a more earnest treatment of the subject matter. My expectations were far from met. A common refrain of the press reviews is that the movie does not do much in explaining the workings of the WTO. Having watched the movie, I can now say that its faults are worse than that: its errors of omission in inadequately explaining what the WTO does pale in comparison to its errors of commission in tarring the WTO with far-fetched sins it couldn't possibly have committed.

The opening two and a half minute montage makes accusations against the WTO that are subsequently recycled throughout the movie without much examination. Among other things:

- the WTO harms the environment;
- the WTO harms organized labor (in the United States);
- the WTO harms those in poor countries;

In trying to make the WTO an all-purpose villain, this film begins its descent into incomprehension. Like a certain famous American's worldview, there are no ambiguities here: either you're with us (who love life values) or with the WTO. Plus, anything remotely related to trade is reason enough to tar the WTO, nevermind the lack of an apparent connection--sort of like tying the Iraqi invasion to the 9/11 attacks, for instance. The image above [click to enlarge] is taken from the movie as the narrator states, "despite the problems and the criticism, the WTO continues to grow." Let's examine some of these claims:

(1) It states small bananas growers (in the Carribean) were "crushed" by large corporations. This, of course, is in reference to the never-ending "banana wars" [1, 2, 3]. While it is true that Chiquita Brands has been one of the principal parties to this case, even more vociferous have been the continuing claims of poor Latin American countries like Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. On what grounds is it just for the EU to maintain preferential treatment for ACP countries at the expense of these developing Latin countries also exporting bananas? Also, does the fact that another large corporation, Dole Foods, supported the ACP's position invalidate the Carribean countries' claim by associating with an evil multinational? The film's Bushian simplicity does it no favors. There are competing claims here by poor countries against each other that cannot be determined by a simplistic "anything concerning the WTO is bad" decision rule.

(2) Now we get to "False [Milk] Labels Kill Babies." Making it appear as if the WTO condoned false labeling that killed babies is pure fantasy. More importantly, no one else seems to have made a similarly wild accusation. Given that every sort of conspiracy theory appears on the Internet, that's no mean feat. Why do you need WTO wherewithal to sell mislabeled milk? Moreover, doesn't the WTO promote sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) to minimize such incidences?

(3) Last in this image is "Infant Mortality Rate Increases due to Fraudulent Marketing." This refers to the still-ongoing controversy of Nestle marketing infant formula when health experts advocate breast feeding in the interest of infants' health. Again, this has virtually nothing to do with criticisms of the WTO. If you look at the picture, the caption itself declares powdered milk manufacturers started marketing milk in LDCs during the Seventies. Since the film at least gets something correct in stating the WTO was formed in 1995, how does it become embroiled here? Given a search engine, even my eight-year old nephew could debunk this piece of pure invention. (2) and (3) describe a major failing of this movie: given that there are so many controversies surrounding the WTO--many of them legitimate--why not discuss those instead of dreaming up unrelated criticisms?

Further demonstrating the film's ineptitude, even the attempt to depict these as Internet stories on a protest site circa 1999 fall flat. What self-respecting activist against global corporate takeover would have registered his or her site "http://www.infantmortality.com"? Shouldn't it be "http://www.infantmortality.org"?

The rest of the movie similarly does little to explain the workings of the WTO, although there are some attempts:

(4) About twenty minutes in, protagonist "Django" played by Andre 3000 of the rap group Outkast mentions the shrimp-turtle case as an instance of the WTO harming the environment. Of course, this superficial treatment ignores important details about the case. Poor countries such as India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Thailand were the ones that brought the United States to the WTO's Dispute Settlement Mechanism to contest America not importing shrimp from countries where fishers did not use nets that had escape hatches for accidentally caught turtles as these nets were costly to LDC fishermen. Again spoiling the movie's simplistic blanket argument that the WTO harms the environment, labor, and poor countries, shrimp-turtle places (rich country) environmental regulations against the interests of poor countries, just as the banana case (1) pits the interests of developing countries against other LDCs'.

(5) Speaking of labor, "Django" also mentions a "Million working-class jobs outsourced" in reference to US labor. Again, there may be conflicting interests here: organized labor in America versus livelihoods for the poor in the developing world. Why is outsourcing so terrible if those who may gain jobs at their expense are persons of lesser means in poor countries? We get no intelligent discussion of this conflict; after all, the "WTO is bad," right?

The simple truth is this: the WTO could not be made into an all-purpose villain since the participants in the Battle of Seattle hardly represented a unified agenda. Rather, many worked at cross purposes. Organized labor is first and foremost about keeping jobs in America than about the environment or labor concerns in LDCs. In turn, those from developing countries--even way back in 1999--have been wary of labor and environmental standards being included in trade agreements as backdoor protectionist measures. After all, would any trade ever take place if these standards did not allow LDCs developmental leeway? From TIME even before the protests began:
The largest bloc, made up of 77 developing countries, stands virtually united against efforts by wealthier countries to influence environmental and labor laws in developing countries. As for human rights: "There's an Asian consensus that human rights should not be linked to trade," says economist M.G. Quibria of the Asian Development Bank in Manila. In the view of developing countries, trade-pact clauses involving labor and the environment amount to backdoor protectionism.

That makes it awkward for many U.S. protesters, who say they are out to help the Third World, not just clean up the planet, end child labor and promote human rights. Venezuela and Brazil successfully challenged as discriminatory a U.S. law that set stringent environmental regulations for refineries that make gasoline for export.
(6) The closing credits demonstrates this film's powers of invention: Did you know that the WTO was responsible for the war in Iraq? The filmmakers seem to think so [see image to the right]. Being something less than a dyed-in-wool conspiracy theorist (let me "think": maybe Iraq was attacked to become enmeshed into the WTO's webs of evil), I decided to check the WTO's membership rolls. It turns out Iraq isn't even a WTO member, and it hardly looks like it will become one soon.

I have listed only six clear mistruths, half-truths, and non sequiturs the film makes about the WTO. There are many more. As an IPE instructor, I do not believe that I should influence students in one direction or another: They should be able to figure out for themselves whether the WTO confers benefits or otherwise, and consider ways to make it function more fairly. I would do them no favors by inventing that the WTO condones mislabeled milk products, is complicit in the powdered milk controversy, or waged war against Iraq. Any student of mine who suggested any such inanity would get a failing mark straight away. I do not teach creative writing. My criticisms of the movie are on logical grounds, not ideological ones.

Near the end of the movie, Django tells his fellow protesters, "A week ago nobody knew what the hell the WTO was...now they still don't know what the WTO is--at least they know it's bad." It is no surprise that after watching this movie for an hour and a half, you probably won't know what the WTO is, either. Instead, you could have spent your time far more productively by reading backgrounders on the WTO from the organization itself on the pro- side and sites offering coherent criticisms like the Global Policy Forum (listed elsewhere on this blog) on the anti- side. Not only would you actually learn about how the WTO actually functions, but you would also be better equipped to make an informed opinion of the WTO's virtues or lack thereof. I am not the world's biggest WTO fan, having poked fun at its leadership and questioned its moribund state. That said, it would be far below me to try and profit by slandering the organization on tarted up and indefensible accusations.

Ultimately, Battle in Seattle explains the WTO as clearly as Reform School Girls explains the US prison system. If you want to know more about the organization, this is the last place to look.

10/21 UPDATE: Aside from the aforementioned indifferent critical reception, the movie's box office performance is next to negligible. After more than a month in limited release, this movie has yet to clear $1 million at the box office worldwide. Its take in America is barely $200,000. In addition to being inaccurate, Battle in Seattle is a critical and commercial failure.