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Symbolic Politics and Normative Spins: The Link Between U.S. Domestic Politics and Trade-Environment Protests, Negotiations, and Disputes

October 2001

Citation: 31 ELR 11174

Issue: 10

Author: Gregory Shaffer

While scores of western commentators criticize the nontransparency1 of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in their examination of "green" trade-environment issues, they often ignore the linkage between domestic politics in powerful states and international trade measures. Consciously or unconsciously, they blur this crucial linkage that divides WTO members and exacerbates conflicts and scuttles them to the WTO in the first place. Yet it is this underlying domestic-international, two-level game2 that also needs to be made more transparent, since its examination demonstrates that it is this nexus more than the WTO's lack of transparency that results in trade-environment conflicts.3

This Article makes two central points about debates over the WTO's treatment of trade-environment matters. First, the U.S. public is relatively government-averse and foreigner-wary. It is thus far less likely to support financing of domestic and international programs that directly address environmental concerns than to support trade restrictions against foreign imports. Trade restrictions against foreign imports impose costs on domestic constituents, but these costs are less transparent than the costs of positive environmental programs. Domestic politicians and the mass public therefore respond more favorably to critics' calls for trade restrictions against unrepresented foreigners. WTO critics employ the rhetoric of fighting "multinational corporations,"4 but the sanctions that they advocate can harm developing country workers, and these workers are rarely consulted about them. Positive assistance programs, on the other hand, are both more efficient and equitable. Yet whatever political party is in control, domestic political processes prefer to shift costs through trade restrictions onto foreigners who, in a world of asymmetric power, tend to come from poorer, smaller countries.5 The result is North-South, trade-environment policy controversies brought before the WTO on account of U.S. imposition of unilateral trade restrictions against developing country imports, as opposed to negotiated package agreements involving financial and technical assistance.6

Gregory Shaffer is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin. He can be reached by e-mail at gshaffer@facstaff.wisc.edu. Thanks go to Jeff Atik, Jagdish Bhagwati, Peter Carstensen, Steve Charnovitz, Carin Clauss, Jon Graubart, Robert Hudec, Paul Joffe, Neil Komesar, Kal Raustiala, and David Trubek for their cogent comments, and to Steven Coon, Jon Graubart, and Monica Riederer for valuable research assistance. He would like to note that all errors remain his own. Portions of this Article appeared in the Fordham International Law Journal (which also addressed trade-labor issues) and are being republished with permission.

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