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The Charge of the Trade Brigade
10 October 2001
The West's anticipated military war against terrorism has begun. President George Bush has assembled a powerful coalition of First World countries united in their staunch defense of freedom and security. This coalition is aided by a number of obviously reluctant Third World countries who have divided loyalties and mixed feelings about helping the United States. But what most people don't know is that there is a parallel economic coalition being assembled that mirrors the political loyalties and ambiguities of the war.
The World Trade Organization is still, unbelievably, planning to meet in the Middle East nation of Qatar in a month's time. There, hundreds of high level trade officials and politicians will attempt to resurrect the talks that collapsed in Seattle two years ago. Dear to the heart of the United States and the European Union is the desire to launch a new "round" of trade negotiations, one that would last for several years and advance the global free-trade agenda in a whole host of areas.
The United States wants this new agreement, now more than ever. And it is counting on the strong global support for its war on terrorism to revive its failed trade agenda. Robert Zoellick, U.S. Trade Representative, equates support for free trade with the fight against terrorism. Declaring that free trade "promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle," he has launched a drive to persuade Congress to grant the President "fast-track" authority.
He says that in signing such legislation, the United States would be signaling to the world that it does not plan to retreat from its global responsibilities, including the defense of free trade against terrorist threats and opponents of globalization.
Until the terrible events of Sept. 11 and the war now being fought, it appeared there would be no chance at all of a new round. The differences between the wealthy countries of the North and the poor countries of the South were too great. The U.S., Canada and the EU have proposed an ambitious agenda that includes a number of new items, including investment, services and competition.
More than 70 poorer countries are absolutely opposed to the introduction of new items; they say that their economies have been hard hit by the trade agreements already signed and are demanding that issues such as access to Northern markets and the power imbalance between North and South be addressed before the launch of any new agenda.
This assertion of the Third World was one of three reasons that the talks in Seattle broke down. The other two were massive public opposition to the WTO and a deep dispute between Europe and the U.S. over agriculture and food safety. Now, in the "new normal," much has changed. Qatar is off limits to all but a tiny group of NGOs, and in the wake of the assault on the United States, the global protest movement, which prefers a political solution to a military one, is examining its role in the post-Sept. 11 world.
The United States has found itself indebted to its strongest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the two plan a united front in Qatar. The EU and the U.S. had already buried the hatchet and agreed not to let any disagreements between them scuttle new talks.
Interestingly, when the WTO published its planned agenda for Qatar last week, agriculture was glaringly absent. So that leaves only the dispute between the North and the South.
The Bush administration is now putting great pressure on Third World countries such as India to come on board the bandwagon; it sweetens its demands with debt-relief packages and trade offers such as the $8- billion (U.S.) emergency package for Argentina (it came hours before that country endorsed a new round) -- or the decision to ease economic sanctions imposed against Pakistan for pursuing its nuclear-weapons program in 1998.
It is very difficult to predict where all this will lead. But it's certain that there is much soul-searching going on among Third World countries as they try to decide if disagreeing with the United States over trade is the same as being on the "other side" in the global war on terrorism.
The linking of the war on terrorism with the successful launch of an ambitious new trade round should give us pause for thought. Every year in our world, more people fall into poverty and more people die from dirty water and the lack of affordable drugs. On Sept. 11, more than 35,000 children died of starvation around the world. Many of these casualties are the result of the policies of the World Bank and the WTO which favor corporate interests over social justice and promote a world of winners and losers.
Do we really think that more of the same economic medicine will make the world a better, or a safer, place? Or is it time to use the meeting in Qatar to address the issues of global poverty and environmental degradation? That would make this a coalition worthy of its task.