"Behind the Scenes At the WTO: The Real World Of International Trade Negotiations"

Fatoumata Jawara and Aileen Kwa
Zed Books, London, New York 2003 $36.95

- Jeremy Agar

The authors of this intriguing account of life at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are two more or less anonymous people who have been there. This, for starters, is unusual. Books about governmental negotiations normally come in two varieties. There are memoirs of politicians, which are published in order to safeguard reputations, and there are analyses by the academics and civil servants whose careers have all too often been captured by these same politicians. Their accounts might be good, bad or indifferent, but almost always they too are predictable, and for the same reason that politicians’ autobiographies are dreary. They are published in order to validate a point of view.

Jawara, who has worked for development agencies in Gambia and Zimbabwe, is now studying for her MA at Columbia, in the US, and at the WTO. Kwa, from Asia, is identified as an expert in agricultural issues. She works, in Geneva, as a policy researcher for the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South. These backgrounds indicate the most significant point of difference between Jawara and Kwa and the usual chroniclers. Although both are from the Northern Hemisphere, they come from the "South", that is to say from the world outside the power centres of Europe, Japan and North America. They are activists and analysts from that great bulk of our planet, which goes by various names. It was once the Third World. It became the developing world. Its countries are sometimes the have-nots. The South might be hard to name, but we know where it is. It’s almost everywhere that is not near Washington, London, Paris or Tokyo. It’s supposedly in the name of people like Jawara and Kwa (Southern people who mostly live in the Northern Hemisphere) that the WTO negotiations are being held.

So it’s useful to hear from them, if only because of who they are. The book, however, is excellent, a real eye-opener. As the title suggests, life at the WTO is more than it seems from the outside. If we think about it all, we probably think of the WTO as a gathering of those legendary old white men in their grey suits. Beyond a numbing array of acronyms that it invents, we know close to nothing about what happens there.

Jawara and Kwa say that what goes on is far from a snoozefest. The WTO presents itself as tedious because it doesn’t want us Southerners to get excited. It wants to encourage the view that world trade is an administrative matter, best left to bureaucrats. If the rest of us assume that this is the case, we won’t sympathise with the critics. We’ll accept the characterisation which the power elites favour of protestors as contrary, misinformed losers.

The Monkey House

Most of what happens at world trade talks is the result of informal consultations conducted behind closed doors. The elites inside refer to plenary sessions of the WTO, the deliberations of which we get to hear about, as the "monkey house". In their eyes meetings of all of the member states can’t produce much. They’re seen as an opportunity for delegates to waste precious time with uninformed, irrelevant and self-aggrandising speeches. The real business takes place in smaller meetings. The WTO leadership argues that you can’t give equal weight to 146 delegations and that to try to do so would end in frustration. Jawara and Kwa observe that the policy is to "let anybody talk as long as he pleases provided he doesn’t say anything" (p81). The WTO has to preserve the niceties but it is an organisation in a hurry.

At the time that Jawara and Kwa are describing, the Doha * sessions, the Director-General was New Zealand’s Mike Moore. They point out that Moore was an unpopular choice with the bulk of the (Southern) delegates, being seen, correctly, as the stooge of the North. The Americans wanted him. Eventually Mike contrived just enough votes to get the job after a tied vote, but the monkey house was beginning to chatter. Later, at the 2003 Summit, at Cancun (Mexico) meeting, the monkeys were to turn on their keepers. * The 2001 WTO Summit was held in Doha, Qatar. Ed.

Why Moore? Mike had proved his credentials as a free trader, but so have many other hacks riding the wave. He would have come to the notice of the elites for being a member of a government that had dared more than any other in a developed, democratic society. For a time, when Moore entered the 1984 NZ government as a senior minister along with fellow ideologues like Sir Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble, the blokes knocked heads and got things moving. The global elites took notice.

What might have clinched Moore’s exalted spot in the pantheon is his willingness to make no secret of his distaste for democracy. Before he went to Geneva, Mike had had to slum it in Wellington with the locals. But after a while Mike and the Rogernauts met resistance. The Prime Minister, David Lange, wanted a cuppa. Moore tells us in his autobiographies how hard it was for the Elect to get things done when they had to account to the electors. See Jeremy’s review of Moore’s "A World Without Walls", his account of his three years as the WTO’s Director-General, in Watchdog 103, August 2003. It can be read online at http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/03/09.htm Ed.

This background, familiar Down Under, helps us local readers do a lot of reading between the lines. When Jawara and Kwa tell us that Moore liked to talk things over with what he called his "friends of the Chair", we do not suppose that the boss’ friendships blossomed under a benign sun of mutual love. We might even suppose that friendship was hatched by political calculation. Presented as a common-sense response to the need for efficiency, the selection of friends was in fact a technique to deny influence to those who might not be reliable. Only true believers in the cause of unfettered global capitalism could befriend the Director-General.

Always there has been a privileged inner circle. In itself, this is unsurprising. Human groups usually have an in crowd and an out crowd, and when they’re bound by precedent, law and custom, the effects of the resulting misunderstandings can be reduced. With the WTO there are no such restraints. The WTO has no formal mandate, it conducts its affairs under the auspices of no constitution, and it is answerable to nobody in particular. No New Zealander, nor any citizen of any of the world’s countries, has ever been invited to vote for the WTO or agin it. The friends of the Chair have no real connection to any accountable structures. Mike and his pals are making it up as they go.

Jawara and Kwa report in alarming detail the consequences. Most of the work of pushing ahead with the WTO agenda occurs between meetings. The conferences which attract the headlines are supposed to be routine endorsements of what has already been determined. Again this is not surprising. Whether it’s good or bad is one thing, but it’s normal. Workplaces are like this, as are parliaments and bridge clubs. The in group makes the decisions and gets the outs to accept them.

The Inner Circle

So who are in the inner circle of world trade? There are four big members, the US, Canada, the EU and Japan. They - the "Quad" - run the show. Within the Quad, the US dominates and American allies become the friends of the Chair. At Doha, there were six such mates, one for each of of the main issues being negotiated. It was their job to hurry proceedings to try to get acceptance and ratification of the agenda within the five days allotted. The sextet of friends is significant, being made up of senior politicians from countries accepted as reliable in the inner sanctums of the North yet thought to have at least some that are influential in the South. They were Singapore, Canada, Switzerland, Chile, Mexico and South Africa. It’s an interesting, if predictable list, with one possible exception. The authors cannot hide their disappointment with the South African government.

Apparently Moore’s friends did not trust their host, the Emir of Qatar, to keep the monkeys quiet, so they tried to get him to relinquish the chair to someone more "experienced". The representatives of countries that were too small or too stubbborn were treated with sometimes open contempt, especially as the self-imposed deadline approached. We read of an African ambassador forced to sit on the floor when he turned up at a session of friends and acquaintances. Ambassadors who look like rocking the imperial boat get warned off. "If you go against the majors", one such delegate told the authors, "they go to the capital and twist things around saying things like you are anti this and that". Apparently it’s not uncommon for ambassadors to be recalled or fired.

A recurring theme of the book is the exhaustion of the delegates from the poorer and smaller countries. The big and rich countries had specialised assistants and teams of negotiators. When, on the final day, the deadline was not met, it was decreed that the conference would sit through the night. The authors quote representatives from the South who complained that in past conferences they had agreed out of tiredness to clauses which they did not fully understand or which they did not like. Jawara and Kwa suspect that the Moorites get them tired on purpose. Unionists might be reminded of contract negotiations, which usually seem to adjourn at dawn.

Because of the extra expense of travelling around the world to places like Qatar and Mexico, the authors would prefer that talks were always held in Geneva. They also argue that the Quad and their ‘‘friends" would prefer that the South send ministers rather than delegates with expertise in the economics of trade because they have a better chance of bullying a tired politician than a well-researched bureaucrat (though even in Geneva, where formal hiring equality might be thought to be the norm, the WTO’s staff has been overwhelmingly recruited from the rich world).

Jawara and Kwa tell a story about Bretton Woods * which suggests they might be right. In 1944 the postwar order was being planned around a proposed World Bank and an International Monetary Fund (IMF). British economists have since complained that it was at this conference that the UK ceded global financial supremacy to a US that was surging to global dominance. At Bretton Woods the Americans needed to talk to the UK, but that was about it. There were no other major governments up and running - and certainly not any that might have had the impulse to contest the issues. The brilliant but dying John Maynard Keynes, the British delegate to both talks, could not attend all the plenary talks. Neither did he have time to read the final document before it was time to sign his agreement:

"... Keynes would only be able to focus on Bank matters, and would have little time or energy left to deal with Fund matters. The strategy (of overworking him) worked well. ‘Our only excuse’, Keynes later explained, ‘is that our host had made final arrangements to throw us out of the hotel, unhoused, disappointed, within a few hours"’ (p115). * Bretton Woods, New Hampshire (USA), was the venue for the 1944 international conference that created what are still known as the Bretton Woods institutions – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the forerunner of the WTO, namely the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), among others. Ed.

Mike Moore, Enemy Of The Developing Countries

Another anecdote, attributed to the Foreign Minister of Thailand, gives an idea of how things are done these days. In June 1999, when support for Moore and Thailand’s Commerce Minister, Supachai Panitchpakdi, was deadlocked, the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, phoned her Thai counterpart, Surin Pitsuwan. The understanding at WTO was that the job was due to go a developing country but Albright wanted her man, Moore. Would Thailand’s man, the front runner, step aside?

"She asked if it was possible for Dr Supachai to consider accepting a new post to be created for him - the chief liaison to establish policy cohesion among the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF. ‘Only Supachai has the qualities to do it’, she said ...

"The answer from the Thai Foreign Minister was that it would be inappropriate for Thailand and Dr Supachai to accept any other position, let alone a position that did not even exist yet...." (p188).

According to Pitsuwan, he proposed the compromise that each has a turn. Eventually the six year term was split between Moore, who got the first three years, and Supachai. Ed.

Moore has more than once been accused of personally intervening himself to push the yokels into line. When your reputation is for being a patsy of the rich, it might be smart to be smooth. Moore isn’t. He is generally seen as conforming to the stereotype some have of being a wild colonial boy. After Doha an Asian delegate summed up Moore as likely to "go down in history as the enemy of the developing countries" (p195).

Moore’s language could not have helped cajole the delegates. "There is no denying", he recently suggested, "that some members are more equal than others" ("Free Trade At Any Price?", ARENA, p8). Moore’s reference will be recognised around the world as the most frequently cited, the most Orwellian, of George Orwell’s coinages. Many would also know its origin. In "Animal Farm", the pigs, sheep, dogs, cows and horses successfully revolt against human Mr Jones, who wants only to sell them at the market. But the greedy pigs plot against their trusting mates. In the night the pigs’ lackey dogs amend animalism’s inspirational guides, the one in question having been "All animals are equal". Moore prides himself on being well read, and he tells us he has a good sense of humour and an appeciation of irony. So why did the Director-General cite Orwell?

Moore’s borrowing from Orwell is unusual in itself being Orwellian. Instead of laughing at the counter-revolutionaries, he seems to be identifying with the animal whose role is most analogous to his own, with Squealer, the officious pig who runs propaganda on the farm. Perhaps, when they talk about the monkey house, the senior WTO bureaucrats have a model in mind. They are indeed bent on declaring that some monkeys are more equal than others.

The Central Importance Of "Flexibility"

Squealer’s cleverness lay in realising that his enemy was moral clarity and that, in order to blur the edges of right and wrong, he had to fuzz words. He needed vague language in order to confuse understanding and blunt resolve. So simple slogans were lengthened. At the WTO, too, Jawara and Kwa found that clear and direct understanding was being impeded in the name of "flexibility", the euphemism employed to fudge and divert. Flexible slogans, flexible relationships:

"Any country whose political system operated as the WTO did before, during and after the Doha Ministerial - where procedures were interpreted with such ‘flexibility’, rules were routinely ignored, and people or interested groups routinely used bribery and blackmail to achieve their political ends - would not only be rightly condemned by the international community as undemocratic and corrupt, it would also face a real and constant threat of revolution. No developed country would contemplate running its government in this way, and yet they are happy both to exploit the system and to defend it against pressure for democratic reform at the international level".

This is a serious charge, made in the sort of strong language that is not what we might expect from trade delegates in the course of a sharp, insightful analysis. It’s their list of offending countries (the running dogs?) that catches the eye:

"Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and Switzerland said in a proposal in June 2002, ‘Processes need to be kept flexible.... Prescriptive and detailed approaches to the preparatory processes are inappropriate and will not create the best circumstances for consensus to emerge at the Cancun meeting ... Restraint and flexiblity will be essential...’" (p277). And so on. Wordy, pompous, resolutely dishonest and devoid of unambiguous meaning. Nothing but bullshit. "Flexibility" is discussed in detail in Jeremy’s review of "Free Trade At Any Price?". Ed.

The agenda which so interested the New Zealand delegation was not the one in which the national interest is so obvious and so frequently stated. It was not about agriculture or about ensuring access for Southern food to Northern markets. Doha and Cancun were all about ensuring access for Northern services to Southern markets. They were to do with the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and all the alphabet soup of the 21st Century. The friends of the Chair wanted the talk to be about the "modalities" of these "new issues". Translated into English (the WTO version of which language was used throughout proceedings, sometimes without the benefit of translators) this means that the power brokers want the talks to be about how the world’s societies will be opened for business. They want to bypass to what extent or when or even whether the world’s societies should surrender control over their own ways of life.

At Cancun the pigs and dogs got their answer. The sheep have bleated.

Besides China (see my review of "Free Trade At Any Price?") the authors assess the most influential of the Southern countries as being India. It has been around India, a consistent critic of the official agenda, that opposition has tended to form. The book details the various combinations that have evolved, a record that will be of interest to researchers.

In the constantly shifting sands of the Qatar, where words and allegiances flitted in any desert breeze, the method of consensus gets a lot of blame. Jawara and Kwa point out that a "Chairman’s text" is issued to report WTO decisions after unrecorded proceedings. Rather than summing up agreements, as is said to be its purpose, such publications are in fact the arbitrary - and self-interested - musings of the Director-General. What is called consensus allows the vague and evasive phrasing on which the power elite relies. The big players tell the small players that they are standing in the way of the majority, that they are spoilsports. Appealing to consensus helps them to stampede weaker states by presenting ruthless pressure as something benign.

A New Kind Of Imperialism

If World War II propelled the US to global power, September 11, 2001 has allowed the Bush Administration to press American claims as never before. Jawara and Kwa say that in the aftermath of the attacks the US enjoyed the sympathy of allies while feeling free to lean on others who were anxious to distance themselves from terrorism. At Doha, the authors claim, Islamic Egypt, Indonesia and Malaysia all softened previous support for the Southern cause. In 2001 the stars were lined up for the US. The agenda to lock in its global economic, military, cultural and technological dominance was presented when few were in the mood to pick a fight with Washington.

Jawara and Kwa call this dawning 21st Century the age of neo-colonialism. Dominant economic activities have moved from the exploitation of natural resources to the development of services and the metropolitan governments where the big corporations are domiciled hope not to need to conquer the world with armies. They don’t bother with governors. The global corporations hope that the WTO will do the trick. So the pressures are intense, expressed through a "combination of ideology, paternalism and missionary zeal" (p269). Though now the church is secular.

Reflecting the new and crude trade tactics, an official from the US’ closest buddy was happy to spell out his negotiating aims. The new economy, said a Tony Blair adviser, was being impeded by hangovers from the bad old days. Maybe the tardy need a bit of old-fashioned hurry up after all:

"When dealing with the more old-fashioned kinds of state outside the post-modern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era - force, pre-emptive attack, deception ... The opportunities, perhaps even the need, for colonisation is as great as it ever was in the 19th Century ... What is needed is a new kind of imperialism" (Robert Cooper, British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, quoted in the Guardian, p270).

Wanting to unite the various Italian states into one modern nation state, the nationalist visionary Giuseppe Mazzini remarked that Italy, with its foreign colonisers, was no more than a geographic expression. Jawara and Kwa might say that the South is just such an expression, not to be taken literally. The South is the geography of dislocation. When you’re in the South, you get mislaid.

The nation state such as the one that Mazzini wanted to create was emblematic of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now the world’s countries are being told that their national traditions and customs have to go. The liberal democracy that the nations built is too much of a compliance cost. The South is being told to surrender its collective identities. The WTO is tired of the nation state and the US is tired of the United Nations, the global organisation it did so much to foster after the Second World War.

Like ARENA’s researchers, Jawara and Kwa are always conscious of the broader historical context. They understand the big picture - how the WTO has evolved from the global post-Bretton Woods economy. And they see the daily machinations at first hand. Thus their account is invaluable. Without the sort of perspective they show us, the chaos at the WTO presents itself as posturing and rudeness without much point. Jawara and Kwa have enabled us to go beyond the easy cynicism that such ignorance can foster. They give us hope that the South might be finding its way on the road from Doha.

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Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. August 2003.

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