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Whither the WTO | The Nation

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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Whither the WTO

The announcement from Geneva that the "Doha Round" negotiations for another global trade agreement is in "collapse" lacked high drama since impending failure was already clear to all but the most fervent cheerleaders for the World Trade Organization. Five years of sloganeering and media pep talks and clever maneuvering failed to persuade developing nations or even inspire much enthusiasm in advanced economies. This is very good news for peoples of the world, though you won't see the story played that way in the American press.

In round-about fashion, the WTO's failure represents belated vindication for the blue-green movement that arose in Seattle six years ago and the Global Social Forum launched later from Porto Alegre, Brazil. These bottom-up political mobilizations offered an alternative vision for globalization – not dominated by the desires and dictates of multinational corporations but by ideas of popular sovereignty and common human aspirations that are shared by people in vastly different trading nations. That promising movement was eclipsed by the drama of 9/11 and war in Iraq, but it was never really sidetracked. Many individual countries have already revolted against the "Washington Consensus" and even establishment experts are beginning to acknowledge its failures. Defeat for them in Geneva is an important marker of progress for those who can imagine a different world.

That assembly includes especially the poorer nations of the world, struggling to find their way in a complex game of economic diplomacy usually controlled by the corporate big boys. This time, the impoverished countries stood their ground. They did not take the bait and swallow the empty promises, though they were coaxed and bullied by the major industrial players, led by the US. That reflects both their courage and growing maturity.

The essential deal offered the poor was, if they would accept the expanded domination of the WTO and its multinational sponsors, the rich nations would slash their lush subsidies for global agribusiness, leaving more market space for agricultural producers in developing nations. Many gullible editorial writers bought the logic, but not the poorer nations themselves. To believe that promise, you had to believe George W. Bush was going to sell out Texas cotton and Florida sugar and Midwestern grain or that Paris intended to dump the prosperous farmers of Normandy.

The larger meaning of the Doha collapse is the growing rejection of the WTO itself as a trustworthy governing institution for the global system. It was created ten years ago and it's been down hill ever since, both for rich and poor nations. The activists of Global Trade Watch, arm in arm with other groups around the world, make this case persuasively in a new briefing paper. The demise of Doha, they argue, should restart the worldwide debate on new and more fundamental terms – more promising for people and less deferential to global capital.

"Instead of pinning blame on specific countries, the focus of energy should be on how the world's governments can develop a multilateral trade system that preserves the benefits of trade growth and development, while pruning away the many anti-democratic condstraints on domestic policy making in the existing WTO rules," Global Trade Watch explains. "Much of the backlash against coroporate globalization implemented by the WTO is aimed at the damage caused by the comprehensive one-size-fits-all, non-trade rules comprising the majority of the WTO text."

In blunt summary, the new approach means the following: Scale back the powers of the WTO so that human rights, environmental, labor and other public-interest standards can be adopted "as a floor of conduct for corporations seeking the benefits of global trade rules." In other words, bring other international organizations into the process, with power to enforce standards on everything from toxics to food security to worker rights.

The system, meanwhile, must loosen its grip on individual nations and governments so they can develop their own domestic priorities on non-trade issues. "Countries must be free to prioritize other values and goals above what are sometimes countervailing demands of multinational corporations," the briefing paper asserts.

This is an immense challenge and obviously difficult for brain-dead politicians to grasp and embrace. But it's also an exciting and promising new opening. Imagine that the collapse of the old order has occurred, though not yet acknowledged by its sponsors. "Another world is possible," as the activists like to say, and it has just become a bit more possible.

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