It used to be that World Trade Organization meetings made excellent news. Where else could you get such loud protests and rampant destruction coupled with powerful men in suits gathering in meetings and having high stakes negotiations?
But there hasn't been much copy on the WTO negotiations in Cancun. There were the same alarming protests, but few people wrung their hands about the great divide between the people shouting at one side of the fence, and the people ignoring them on the other. This was not the story.
The real story was that Cancun failed. Parties walked out of the meetings without agreeing to anything. There were few, if any, multi-lateral statements, and American and European representatives were even threatening to abandon the WTO altogether. In the eyes of the pundits, the protests were a mere side-show. The WTO had collapsed under its own weight, and the organization was no longer a viable forum for change.
In reality (or, at least the reality as Gwynne Dyer spins it), what happened in Cancun signifies a major shift in how the WTO may operate in the future -- even how world affairs will be conducted. Americans and Europeans, typically content to spar with each other over competing subsidies and political disagreements, faced the sudden emergence of a third player: the Group of 21, led by China, India and Brazil, which faced up to American and European demands with remarkable solidarity.
Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, we've seen a gradual drifting apart of American and European interests. You can sense it in the disagreement over the invasion of Iraq. You can even feel it in a number of American blogs. These were the two most powerful economies in the world, now, and it's only natural that there will be rivalry and competition.
But the developing world stood up to American-European interests to the point that American and European representatives were united in their shock. The Group of 21 demanded a larger share of the action, refused to be bullied, and as Cancun shows us, neither the Americans nor the Europeans quite know what to make of it.
Trade negotiations throughout the world have been taken into an interesting new, show-stealing area. The protesters may even have to take up their pickets and go home; the meeting rooms will soon be where the real action is.