Like a political party's national convention, the international trade conference next week in Seattle is more important for who will be present in the city than for the decisions that will be made at official meetings.
Vying to make their issues visible above the hoopla, top trade experts from the auto industry will be among those gathering Nov. 29 to Dec. 3 for the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization.
The conference, the beginning of a years-long process to write new market-opening rules for international trade, took on added significance last week when the United States and China agreed on terms for admitting China to the World Trade Organization, the body that administers the rules.
Still, the main order of business next week for officials from more than 130 nations - setting the agenda for the next several years - is the equivalent of talking about 'the shape of the table,' one attendee said.
Despite that limited purpose inside the hall, U.S.-based automakers will be represented in Seattle by the likes of Rudolph Schlais and Andrew Card, General Motors' vice presidents; Bill Kelly, Ford Motor Co. director of international governmental affairs; and Yancy Molnar, DaimlerChrysler international policy analyst.
PLENTY OF ANXIETY
Offering other points of view outside the convention center will be thousands of protesters, led by organized labor, environmentalists and religious organizations. The leaders have promised mass demonstrations against what they see as the dangers of more unregulated trade.
'The pace of globalization has stirred up some anxieties in some sectors,' said Stephen Collins, president of the Automotive Trade Policy Council, who will also be representing GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler in Seattle.
In less of an understatement, Walter Huizenga, president of the American International Automobile Dealers Association, said, 'International trade has become the lightning rod for everything.'
So, the potential circus atmosphere will be an added challenge for Huizenga, Collins and others like them who are trying to get some specific policy issues addressed.
AIADA will continue its crusade to eliminate the 25 percent U.S. tariff on imported pickups.
STRUCTURE FOR DISPUTES
Huizenga said his organization also wants the United States to agree to handle future trade disputes in a structured way, such as through the World Trade Organization, instead of threatening unilateral sanctions against imported vehicles, as it did in 1995.
And AIADA wants consideration given to 'zero-for-zero' trade agreements in the automotive sector. In other words, pairs of countries would be encouraged to eliminate tariffs on each other's imported vehicles.
Collins said U.S.-based car companies are most interested in reducing trade barriers in emerging markets because that is where growth will occur.
Mustafa Mohatarem, chief economist for GM, said another purpose of the new talks is to determine how well countries have complied with agreements reached in the so-called Uruguay Round, which occurred in 1986-94.
Looking at some others' interests, Collins said Japan wants to limit the ability of the United States to use anti-dumping sanctions, and the European Community 'wants everything on the table.'
Admitting some surprise at the widespread attention being paid to the Seattle meetings, Collins predicted: 'A lot of people are going to figure out why everyone else is going.'