A little broken glass in the streets of Seattle has transformed the World Trade Organization into a popular icon for the unregulated globalization that tramples human values on every continent, among rich and poor alike. The guys and gals in turtle suits, with a little help from overanxious cops, woke up America and maybe the world.
The WTO, I had assumed, was already a doomed institution. It lacks the legal authority to police the domain it grandiosely claims to govern. Nor are its founding sponsors going to allow genuine reform, since accepting the legitimacy of labor and environmental rights, social obligations and national sovereignty would destroy the WTO’s usefulness for global business and finance. Given the dilemma, I do not expect this queer duck of pseudogovernance–a private club for deal-making among the most powerful interests, portrayed as a public institution searching for international “consensus”–to survive. Of course, it may take years of agitation and conflict before the global establishment accepts reality. Arrogance designed the WTO; arrogance will doubtless defend it. In the meantime, the WTO can serve as a splendid rallying point for popular resistance.
The organization was created in 1995 based on a colossal error in judgment: Multinational firms and financiers, joined by political elites in wealthy nations, failed to grasp that once the cold war was over, people would be able to look more directly upon the pathologies and instabilities of the globalizing economy. For four decades, critics and victims were silenced by the cold war’s imperatives. Now the veil has fallen away, and a burgeoning worldwide movement is finding its voice.
Bill Clinton bet his presidency on the same misjudgment. He formed an obsequious alliance with US multinationals and Wall Street finance to secure his own power, while his famous charm was used to deflect the disappointed constituencies he betrayed. Those groups–organized labor, environmentalists, the religious faithful, free-spirited humanists–called his bet in Seattle, and this time manipulation failed him. When John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO refused to accept one more fig-leaf gesture of the President’s good intentions, Clinton dared not move forward with another business-friendly sellout.
Clinton and the trade lawyers in his Administration may have been misled by believing their own simple-minded rhetoric on free trade–“more trade good, no trade bad,” the mantra they repeat in response to every grievance. It is a non sequitur that dodges the fundamental issues. Without the cold war, it no longer persuades a majority of Americans. The mantra also misrepresents the essential nature of the global system. Yes, trade liberalization reduces formal barriers like tariffs, but the operating reality of the global system is a complex, informal arena of irregular political bargaining among producers and suppliers, investors and governments–deal-making across national borders that shapes every sector of commerce.
Does Boeing want to sell more airplanes to China? Then Boeing must negotiate terms for market access. China demands a share of the production, jobs and advanced technology. Boeing meets the demands; China buys more planes. All multinational giants, from AT&T and Motorola to Volvo and Toyota, routinely do similar sorts of deals. This is not free trade; it’s a crude system managed by political bartering among major interests. The GATT agreements, dating from the first one in the forties, simply provide a set of closely argued rules of the road for deal-making. An agreement typically starts with a few broad principles about equal treatment for all trading partners, but what fills up the text is the crazy quilt of lawyerly exceptions–the fine print that spells out how certain principles can be ignored in certain cases, how some forbidden practices are allowed by mutual agreement among the self-interested companies and governments.