For twenty years, the fight to globalize the world’s economy has been a rout. The largest transnational corporations expanded their power in every direction — Japanese conglomerates cut down forests across the tropics; American grain companies dictated the price of food; Baywatch found a billion viewers a week.

But that rout has suddenly turned into a contest, which is why the “ministerial summit” of the World Trade Organization will turn Seattle into the most important place on earth the week after Thanksgiving. It will be a battle zone — literally, as nonviolent protesters try to disrupt the work of the summit, but also intellectually. The two ideas that could define the next century will be on display.

One of those ideas — globalization — has been gathering force since World War II. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was periodically renegotiated to smooth the transactions of a growing international economy. In 1995, though, it took a quantum leap: The GATT agreement was transformed into the WTO, an actual decision-making body that, among other things, can enforce its rules by overriding the laws of its member nations. Bill Clinton provided the key final push for the WTO, persuading just enough congressional Democrats to ignore protests from labor and environmental groups to allow its passage. It became the cornerstone of his achievements in office, the permanent emblem of the economic boom that marked his two terms.

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The other idea is harder to define. Opposition to the “new world order” comes from many quarters, including the buggy Buchanan right, but its most powerful voices are raised in defense of the local — local workers, local environments, local cultures, local economies. Its leaders come from around the world, south as well as north. They worry about erosion — of soil, of tradition, of the ability to feed a family. They care less about economic growth than about economic justice.

It’s easier to understand them when you look at their two recent victories. The first is their success in blunting the drive toward genetically engineered food. In the space of just a few growing seasons, Monsanto and other seed companies seemed well on the way to dramatically altering the agricultural systems that have slowly evolved for the past 10 millennia. This spring, nearly half the corn and soy planted across the Midwest were genetically altered varieties.

But this spring something went wrong. Consumers across Europe suddenly woke to the fact that this exotic technology was taking over their refrigerators, and led by a small number of environmental campaigners, they said no. Within weeks, Britain’s big supermarkets were pledging never to sell GM foods, and buying up tropical isles so they could guarantee a supply of unmodified bananas; within weeks after that, American farmers were worrying about where they’d sell their crops. Environmentalists, meanwhile, woke up to the threat when a study showed that pollen from the altered corn killed monarch butterflies, something Monsanto hadn’t bothered to test.

This sudden backlash, though, didn’t come out of nowhere. It built upon years of organizing, especially across the poor world, where peasant farmers and their advocates had long resisted seed-patenting, agribusiness takeover of land, and the other tools of this new agricultural economy. Now Monsanto and its allies plan vast ad campaigns to smooth the troubled waters, but it may be too late for them.

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A year earlier, and with less publicity in this country, campaigners managed to derail an expansion of the WTO called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment that would, in essence, have prohibited nations from restricting international investments in their nations. Developing countries would have lost control of economic policies as surely as they have lost control of trade rights. Financial markets, by pulling vast amounts of money from small nations if they don’t do what Wall Street wants, already exert enormous control — but the MAI would have made that de facto power into a legal right, would have cemented into place the current power balances.

Cases like the MAI are hard to explain; much simpler are the WTO rulings that have overturned environmental or labor laws. So expect to read a lot in the papers about, say, shrimp — the WTO recently ruled that the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which required special devices on shrimp trawlers to guard against killing sea turtles, was illegal. U.S. law will have to bend; trade is mightier than turtles any day.

But the real issues — and the real stakes — are much larger. The real reason turtles are threatened is because globalizing trade has built up enormous fleets of industrial shrimp boats, that kill off not only turtles but the millions of fisherfolk in dories that have sustainably harvested shrimp for thousands of years.

Those who favor greater globalization, Pres. Clinton chief among them, will try and propose little remedies around the edges. A side agreement to calm those hotheaded environmentalists, some codicil to soothe big labor so it will stop complaining about admitting China to the WTO. “Every group in the world with an ax to grind is going to Seattle,” he said — to him, the protesters are a cloud of annoying insects to be lulled with citronella or swatted away. They can’t be allowed to interfere with the picnic of endless economic expansion that legitimizes his presidency.

Don’t be fooled, though. Right or wrong — and I think they’re far more right than wrong — the dissidents in Seattle have a fundamentally different idea of how the world should look. The battle is real, and its outcome is not as certain as the powers that be would like.

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