Missing Links

Advice for Anarchists

Who is blocking globalization, the protesters or the summiteers?

"Doha will make Seattle look like a picnic," said the World Trade Organization (WTO) official. That was a surprise. After all, one of the reasons to hold the next summit of the world’s trade ministers in Qatar’s capital was that its government and remote location would make it harder for activists to reenact the protests that made the 1999 meeting of the WTO in Seattle famous and the Genoa G-8 summit fatal. "I wasn’t talking about the action outside the building but about what goes on inside," she said. "The disagreements that scuttled the negotiations in Seattle will be even deeper in Doha. The chances of making any substantive progress are minimal."

Such comments highlight a telling paradox: The summits that attract today’s angry flocks of anti-globalization protesters would not have accomplished much even if the protesters had stayed home. Indeed, the dramatic television coverage of protesters engulfed in clouds of tear gas obscures the reality that while the action in the streets of Geneva, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Prague, Quebec City, Göteborg, and Genoa was frantic and, at times, lethal, the action in the rooms where the dignitaries gathered was frustrating and, for the most part, inconsequential.

Both protesters and summiteers have a strong self-interest in conveying the impression that today’s global gatherings are where momentous decisions for humankind are made. Yet for all the talk of a democratic deficit, the world’s real problem is not that these summits produce too many decisions but that they produce too few. At a time when problems that require international agreements and cooperation are soaring, the capacity of the world to reach such collective agreements seems almost exhausted.

Ironically, while protesters rail against a monolithic system bent on homogenizing economies, polities, and cultures, one of the primary reasons for this era of stillborn summits is a cacophony of entrenched competing interests. In fact, both international leaders and delegates in conference centers and antiglobalization protesters in the streets suffer from multiple goals, fragmented factions, and deep confusion over how to achieve their respective goals and hammer out a coalition that can make progress possible on issues such as global warming, AIDS, and genetically modified organisms.

Trade talks are a good example. The rifts between developing and developed countries, the European Union and the United States, technology-based economies and agricultural ones, and capital-importing and capital-exporting nations are becoming more pronounced every year. While the anti-globalization mood that mobilizes the protesters might have had some influence in shaping governmental agendas, that is not what is stopping the world’s governments from agreeing on rules to facilitate international trade and investment. The paralysis stems from the demands of an increasingly complex and interdependent global economy for a wide range of sophisticated standards, as well as for rules and institutions that need a significant degree of consensus.

Unfortunately, as globalization continues to exert its disorganizing and often unequalizing effects, the interests of the countries that need to agree on these common rules are becoming even more disparate. Moreover, the search for consensus is often placed in the hands of multilateral organizations such as the WTO or the World Bank, which have become even more ineffective as they have been given responsibilities that exceed their authority, capabilities, and resources. It is hard to imagine that a single young, understaffed, and underfunded multilateral institution could ever provide the unifying framework needed to break the current stalemate over the rules for international trade. In fact, no multilateral organization can provide the leadership needed to create gridlock-breaking coalitions. Only committed and credible government leaders can.

Trade talks will continue to be hopelessly mired in endless negotiations until the United States, Europe, and Japan start to take the demands of the developing countries more seriously. Poor countries came to the WTO meeting in Seattle and will go to Doha demanding that the developed countries make good on the promises they made to secure a successful conclusion of the Uruguay Round in 1994. Chief among those promises were the resolution of such nettlesome issues as agricultural protectionism in Europe and Japan, the frequent use of anti-dumping measures to restrict imports into the United States, or the massive use of subsidies to support the export industries of rich countries. Seven years later, the developing countries have little to show for their concessions, other than perhaps a brooding resentment for having been exposed in all their naiveté. Meanwhile, the United States goes to Doha bent on strengthening the global enforcement of the intellectual property rights that undergird the information and biotechnology revolutions. This priority will clash not only with concerns of African countries ravaged by the AIDS pandemic (for which they cannot afford the medicines), but also with Europe’s apprehension about genetically modified organisms.

Not much is likely to happen in Doha. Even the street action is likely to be more subdued. Perhaps this likely failure will spur the search for alternative approaches in the quest to agree on the rules that should guide global trade and investment. Meanwhile, demonstrators would do better to protest the futility of the summits that attract their presence than to try to block meetings where nothing happens.

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