Global Agenda | The Nation


Global Agenda

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The promise of Seattle was captured in an antic moment observed by one young environmental activist. Amid broad ranks of protesters, he saw that a squad of activists dressed as sea turtles was marching alongside members of the Teamsters union. "Turtles love Teamsters," the turtles began to chant. "Teamsters love turtles," the truck drivers replied. Their call-and-response suggests the flavor of this loose-jointed new movement--people of disparate purposes setting aside old differences, united by the spirit of smart, playful optimism.

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William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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The corporate-political establishment doesn't get it yet, but sea turtles and Teamsters (with their myriad friends) can change the world. This popular mobilization, disparaged as "Luddite wackos" by the prestige press, is still inventing itself, still vulnerable to the usual forces that can derail new social movements. But its moment is here, a rare opportunity to educate and agitate on behalf of common human values. Among its tasks, this new movement can excavate the human spirit, buried by a generation of arrogant power and a brittle-minded economic orthodoxy.

So what's next for turtles and Teamsters? The World Trade Organization's failure at Seattle (gridlocked on commercial disputes, oblivious to the reform agenda from the streets) has inspired a new organizing slogan: "Fix it or nix it." The WTO is the visible symbol of globalization, and the network of forty country-based campaigns that produced Seattle is working now on when to stage another international day of action.

The US coalition is, meanwhile, gearing up for another crucial fight: blocking Congressional action that would give China a permanent "good housekeeping seal"--instead of annual approval of most-favored-nation status--as it joins the WTO. Any genuine reform of the global system becomes far more difficult if China is to be treated as a "normal" trading partner--one reason business is so anxious to win this one.

Beyond immediate battles, this new movement will sustain itself and grow powerful only if it goes on the offensive--that is, if it can tell a positive story about how the world will look if its values prevail. It can do this with hard facts about the present realities, facts that blow away the establishment's smug abstractions. It should propose concrete legislation--reform laws to be endorsed at the community or state level and enacted by Congress. Not after years of diplomacy, but right now.

What follows is a rough draft of what this national legislation might look like (based on conversations with some leading activists and my own reflections). The central principle is that Americans have the sovereign power to impose rules on the behavior of their own American-based multinational corporations (notwithstanding the WTO's pretensions). Congress did so in 1977 with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits corporate bribery in overseas projects. That law was passed in response to public outrage over repeated scandals revealing that major US companies were buying foreign governments. Human abuses present in the global system are far more grave than business bribes.

Since it's obvious that the WTO and other international forums have no intention of acting, Americans really have no moral choice but to assert responsibility. After all, random brutalities in the production system are done in our name and to our benefit as consumers, shareholders, company managers. As the United Students Against Sweatshops has demonstrated, when people learn the facts, moral revulsion follows. Famous brand names find themselves confronted by what they have long denied.

In addition to holding US companies accountable, this first round of legislation should focus on empowering voiceless peoples on the other end of the global system--workers, civic activists, communities--mainly by providing them with the industrial information that will help them speak and act in their own behalf. That means collecting hard data from American companies on where and how they produce overseas. Why would the business cheerleaders object, since they claim globalization itself fosters free-flowing information and democratic values?

These initial proposals are deliberately modest in scope because reformers from the wealthy nations, especially the United States, must first establish their bona fide intentions. The objective is not to stymie industrial development in low-wage economies or to rewrite laws for other societies. Poorer countries are naturally skeptical of our high-minded motives, since they've had long experience with the power of American self-righteousness. If this movement is truly international, it will begin by convincing distant others (the citizens, if not their governments) that our commitment to common humanity is genuine.

If these modest measures succeed, however, they will draw a new map of the world--delineating factory-by-factory which multinational companies are actively subverting shared human values, which nations are truly trying to improve conditions for their people and which are merely participating in the exploitation. The map separates sheep from goats, culprits from victims.

The information is essential because it can set the stage for subsequent legislation that eventually establishes minimum standards for corporate behavior on environmental protection, labor issues and human rights. Then penalty tariffs or other measures could be aimed at the firms or nations that systematically pursue the low road, profiteering on human suffering and ecological despoliation. Trade reform can likewise reward and nurture those nations struggling to break free of the "race to the bottom."

Business will howl that these new measures would put it at a competitive disadvantage, just as they opposed the antibribery law as an intrusion on quaint customs in foreign lands. The impact will be quite marginal if one believes the companies' own lofty claims about their offshore production. In any case, as the world's main buyer of last resort, the United States has the market power to lead on these reform issues. Our trade diplomats should start lobbying Europe and Japan to join this effort because eventually public opinion will turn on any multinational producer that attempts to reap short-term profit by ignoring standards for humane conduct.

Obviously, this is politics for the long haul and difficult at every stage. But none of the barriers are insurmountable if we have our values straight. The action can begin with simple, straightforward matters like fire prevention.

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