No one will mistake the WTO agreement in Doha, launching a new round of global trade negotiations, as a victory for the people. The usual cast of characters, led by the biggest kid on the block, the United States, orchestrated a familiar drama of high peril–world cataclysm if the negotiations fail–and then congratulated themselves for achieving a comparatively modest agenda for going forward. Poorer peoples of the world did not win; neither did the millions of citizens from wealthier nations who have mobilized to oppose the advance of corporate domination. On one issue after another, those people were losers. What else?
Well, in fact, there was something new about this diplomatic dust-up. The big kids realized they had to make nice with the little kids. If you are among the protesters whom the Wall Street Journal unaffectionately calls "Luddite whackos," you may take a little credit for that. At Seattle, remember, one of the central themes raised by people in the streets was the terrible inequities visited upon developing nations by globalization and its dominant powers, the multinational corporations. The initial reaction from governing elites and their media camp followers was disbelief. What on earth are the rabble talking about? Don't they know that globalization lifts all boats, especially those of the poor? Two years later, those pious sermons have been dropped. The governors instead made confession and solicitude the themes of their speeches. It's true, they announced, the poor have been screwed, but we want to make it up to them. Thus, they claim, this new round will be devoted to "development" and correcting the economic injustices.
That's rhetorical blather, of course, and the poorer countries weren't deluded. Still, it is one more small banner of progress in the long and difficult march toward forcing real reform. The developing countries have gained some leverage for their independent views and sovereign aspirations–not a lot but some. They were assisted in this by those voices in the street.
A far more substantive advance is the great concession made by the United States and others when they accepted that public health in poor countries comes before the patent rights of Big Pharma. The monopolistic greed of the drug companies is so blatantly inhumane that one hardly needs to congratulate our trade officials for recognizing it. Given the spongy nature of these agreements, we cannot even yet be sure that the breakthrough is real. Still, this was another major objective of the grassroots movement, led by ACT UP and other activists who campaigned alongside the ministers from Africa, Asia and Latin America. If the pharmaceutical lobbyists maneuver to undo the achievement in the back room, they will be up against a still broader phalanx of ferocious protest from rich and poor nations alike. If the leaders of globalization slyly try to rescind their concession, the WTO's weakening legitimacy will sink further and faster.
Building power globally by uniting distant peoples who seem powerless is a long march, uphill all the way. But we knew that. The lesson from Doha is that zesty, conscientious and honest dialogues across the vast space of global differences can yield real results. With many more conversations and agitations, the vision of coalescing citizens will endure–vigorous, viable and someday capable of winning much larger victories.