Biden’s APEC meeting in San Francisco has roots in Seattle history

Nov 15, 2023, 11:50 AM

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President Bill Clinton hosted the 1993 APEC meeting in Seattle and spoke on Friday, November 19 at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, surrounded by Dale Chihuly glass. (Photo courtesy of Clinton Library)

(Photo courtesy of Clinton Library)

As President Biden prepares to meet later today with President Xi of China at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco, it also happens to be the 30th anniversary of the first APEC Summit, which was held in Seattle with President Clinton and other world leaders of Pacific Rim nations in November 1993.

Three decades later, thanks to a unique setting and a foundational document created here, the 1993 meeting in Seattle still resonates with current APEC diplomats and their staff.

APEC – which stands for “Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation” – was founded by 15 Pacific Rim countries in 1989, but it didn’t have its first big summit until 1993, the year President Bill Clinton was inaugurated.

Seattle had been chosen to host the event early in 1993 when it was supposed to be a ministerial meeting – with only diplomats hashing things out. But then, President Clinton decided in August to elevate it to a meeting of prime ministers and presidents. It became a much bigger deal for everyone involved, especially those tasked with organizing activities and security in Seattle.

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Traffic downtown was occasionally tied in knots as world leaders and motorcades came and went between venues such as the Westin Hotel and the Fairmont Olympic. National TV newscasts originated from Seattle, with Connie Chung of CBS in Kerry Park on Queen Anne Hill and Tom Brokaw and NBC camped nearby in someone’s front yard on Highland Drive. It was almost as cool as the glamorous blimp shots of Seattle when the Seahawks hosted Monday Night Football.

As part of the NBC newscast on the first day of the summit, correspondent Andrea Mitchell laid out some of the challenges and opportunities for Bill Clinton when it came to China and a meeting he would have with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

“The President will be using a carrot and stick approach in this unprecedented meeting of Asian leaders, representing a market of 2 billion people,” Mitchell said. “He wants the Chinese to improve their human rights record and stop selling missiles abroad. In exchange, he’ll offer continued favorable trade treatment due to expire next year. Most urgently, he is seeking China’s help in getting North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program.”

There was no spy balloon crisis in 1993, but there was talk of “Most Favored Nation” status for China being renewed in 1994, which ultimately did happen. The U.S.-China relationship was perhaps not nearly as fraught then as it is now, but APEC in Seattle came just four years after the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square – which President Clinton did mention in a press conference, along with China’s treatment of Tibet, and, then as now, the need for protection of American intellectual property.

Even President Clinton’s detractors concede his oratorical prowess and acknowledge that the guy could give a good speech.

Clinton delivered his public opening remarks at the Olympic Hotel on Friday, November 19, 1993 – after being introduced by Mayor Norm Rice and Governor Mike Lowry – giving high praise to the host city and to the products and entrepreneurs of the Evergreen State.

“This city is the appropriate place to have this meeting,” President Clinton said, surrounded by plinths stacked with Chihuly glass. “Not only is Washington State the most trade-oriented state in the Union, but as I learned from the governor on the way up the stairs when I asked him, 80% of your trade is tied to the Asian Pacific region, and 90% of the imports to this port in Seattle come from Asia.”

“Over half of Boeing’s planes, Microsoft’s computer programs and Washington’s wheat are sold abroad,” the president said.

Clinton also knew how to throw in some personal color, which, in retrospect, might qualify as a presidential dad joke.

“You know, I love Seattle. I always love to come here,” the president said. “I called home last night, and both my wife and my daughter had chewed me out because I was here and they weren’t.”

“We’ve had some wonderful days here,” President Clinton continued. “This morning, I got up and I went running in Green Lake Park, and I didn’t turn green, but I nearly did. It was a vigorous run.”

Monica Whaley is the president of the National Center for APEC, a Seattle-based group that is a direct legacy of the 1993 APEC meetings. Whaley describes it as a private sector organization that works to connect the business community to the APEC policy process.

In 1993, Whaley was deputy director of the Washington Council on International Trade, the group led at the time by Robert A. Kapp. Kapp gets credit for the 1993 APEC meeting being held here – beating out Portland, San Francisco, and other cities before anyone else even knew there was a competition, according to some contemporary newspaper reports.

Because Seattle was the site of the first APEC summit, some of the choices made back then have ended up being carried forward for all subsequent APEC summits, Monica Whaley says, including one significant element that sets APEC apart from G-20 or other international summits.

“There’s always a part of APEC Leaders’ Week called the Leaders’ Retreat,” Whaley said from San Francisco, where she’s taking part in the 2023 summit. “And of course, the formality of it kind of changes depending on who’s the host, but I think they do like to support the idea of free exchange of ideas during at least a part of the leaders’ meeting with one another.”

The Leaders’ Retreat, Whaley says, involves the heads of state and only minimal numbers of support staff so that the leaders can freely discuss complex or difficult topics in a casual setting.

“And that’s kind of a legacy of Seattle, I think,” Whaley said. “This is kind of Seattle-style.”

Famously, the November 1993 APEC Leaders’ Retreat in Seattle was held on a Saturday at Blake Island State Park in the Puget Sound, west of downtown Seattle. At the time, Blake Island was home to Tillicum Village, the long-time Indigenous-themed dinner and cultural attraction that originally dated to the early 1960s. It was also only accessible by boat, which meant it was easy to secure but difficult for setting up communications and other facilities necessary for a meeting of global leaders.

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Whaley said the formal document that came out of the 1993 Seattle meeting, in particular, the Leaders’ Retreat, is called the Blake Island Declaration. Thirty years later, it still stands as the foundational document for everything APEC still represents and the initiatives the member nations pursue together – not unlike the way the community of Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, is associated with global monetary policy and the IMF.

In fact, Blake Island has what might almost be called mythological status in APEC history.

Earlier this summer, the ministerial portion of the 2023 APEC meetings – the prep for what’s going on now in San Francisco – was held in Seattle. Dozens of ambassadors, diplomats, and their support staff from APEC countries gathered here for weeks.

On a stiflingly hot August evening, two chartered tour boats took the diplomats and other staff from downtown Seattle across Elliott Bay to see Blake Island for themselves. This historian was aboard the boat with the diplomats, serving as a volunteer tour guide and giving brief remarks on Seattle’s long history of international trade.

Most of the diplomats aboard the boat had never seen Blake Island in person because they were too young to be here for the Leaders’ Summit 30 years ago. Still, there was a palpable buzz on the boat as it made its way west across the water and then genuine excitement as the vessel came alongside the landing area. Since time was tight and Tillicum Village had ceased operations, this was only a cruise-by, with no going ashore.

Excited conversations could be heard in many different languages, smiling, pointing and taking in the sight of a special place in APEC history. As the captain maneuvered the vessel,

groups of diplomats were organized to pose on the stern of the boat for pictures with Blake Island and its distinctive longhouse in the background.

Why is the legend of Blake Island so important to current APEC members who’ve never even set foot there?

“It’s not just the legend, but the history of APEC that took place on Blake Island,” Monica Whaley said. “They all know, and they refer to, constantly, the Blake Island Declaration. This is a constant in APEC documents” – referencing and quoting – “the Blake Island Declaration.”

“Everybody knew what Blake Island was, but to take them by Blake Island to show it to them and to show them the setting, [cruising] right by where the leaders had taken their formal pictures of that event, that was just really cool for everybody,” Whaley said.

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As for the WTO ministerial meetings in Seattle that infamously went awry in 1999, Whaley says most people have moved beyond the trauma of that event, with the APEC meetings held in Seattle earlier this year proof that Seattle can successfully host international diplomatic gatherings.

“It felt like the old days in some ways,” Whaley said about this summer’s meetings. “Back in ’93, the committee got together to host it, and everybody took one piece and took care of that piece and then came together.”

“It was a really a real community effort,” Whaley said.

As history unfolds in San Francisco, it’s nice to know that Seattle played a foundational role in APEC 30 years ago and in part of the preparations earlier this year — even if Tom Brokaw isn’t standing in someone’s front yard and telling the world all about it.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Biden’s APEC meeting in San Francisco has roots in Seattle history