Issues in Seattle

When governments are corrupt, irresponsible, incompetent, and shortsighted, it becomes easier to accept the idea that the world might be better off being completely ruled by markets.  Markets are supposed to be more honest, more stable in their outcomes, more efficient, and more forward-looking.

In a world rendered unpredictable by the vagaries of politics and the flux of varied cultures, what is the best way to secure the benefits of global trade while minimizing its injurious effects?

This is the crux of the complex issues to be debated in Seattle, starting Tuesday, Nov. 30, when the 135 member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) meet to agree on a new agenda for a “millennium round” of talks on the future of global trade.

Advocates of free trade are pushing hard to expand trade in services to include areas that, in an earlier time, were presumed to be the functions of government — health care, education, water, etc.  They want global investors to have equal access to these socially-sensitive sectors.  On the other hand, opponents of unfettered free trade are seeking to revise the thrusts of the WTO.  They are demanding that, together with trade issues, equal attention be given to social issues like the environment and labor rights.  They reject the WTO’s insistence that trade negotiations deal only with the “product” while treating as irrelevant any reference to the “process” by which products are created.

The gospel of a liberalized global market rests on the hope that free trade promotes economic growth and technological advance, offers cheaper and higher quality goods and services, and affirms freedom of choice.  With the collapse of the centrally-planned economies in Eastern Europe and the weakening of socialist experimentation in China, the idea that nations can plan their futures without much regard for the imperatives of the world market has become illusory.

Today conventional national planning is synonymous with accommodation to the requirements of global corporations.  It means not only dismantling all legal barriers to the free entry of foreign goods and capital, but also providing special treatment to foreign investors so as to entice them to move into the country.  This is the economic policy that the Ramos administration aggressively promoted, and that the Estrada government is now espousing, in complete mockery of his pro-poor avowals.

This economic philosophy has totally redefined the functions of national government.  Whereas before, the national leadership was sworn to protect the national patrimony, to secure the blessings of independence, and to promote equality – today, government finds itself serving mainly as the guarantor of the property rights of foreign investors.   Art. II, Sec. 4 of the constitution may as well be rewritten thus: “The prime duty of the Government is to serve and protect the global corporation.”  This we owe to the WTO.

Unlike the United Nations, which has tried to be respectful of the sovereignty of nations, the WTO has quietly evolved in just a few years as the single most powerful institution on this planet.  Created in 1995 as part of the Uruguay Round provisions of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO was assigned the dual function of expanding world trade and of settling trade disputes. This mandate gives it the extraordinary power to facilitate the unrestricted movement of money, goods, capital, and services across the globe.  Its chief clients are the global corporations that are engaged in such trans-border transactions, while the chief targets of its market cleansing efforts are the restrictive and protective national laws and practices that are seen as barriers to free trade.

The WTO has been very assertive in safeguarding intellectual property rights and the corporate monopoly of the patenting of processes, seed varieties, drugs, and software.  But it has consistently refused to make the environmental and social consequences of trade a part of its concerns.  It will not lift a finger if global corporations destroy the environment or deprive entire communities of their livelihood, but it will summon all its stern disciplinary powers to punish any country that tolerates the spread of “pirated” products or technology.

The loudest protests to the WTO regime have come from European nations that have traditionally protected their agricultural sector and small traders from foreign competition.  These are sectors that not only command enormous political clout on the domestic front, but they are also, more importantly, perceived as  bearers of national tradition and cultural identity.  From the vantage point of countries like France, for example, the incursion into the markets of the likes of Macdonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken, of Barnes & Noble or Borders Books, or of the 7-11 chain of retail stores, would spell not at all the wonders of free trade but only the shameful surrender of national culture.

It is all very ironic.  The prospects of such surrender are feared most by nations who have all the cultural weapons with which to fight, whereas those like us, who have very little by way of defense, continue to be blissfully blind to the perils of unregulated globalization.


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