Imperialism, Human Rights, and Protectionism
Recently I was asked to answer some questions about tactical choices facing
the movement against corporate sponsored globalization. Unfortunately,
people and groups inside the movement differ in their answers to these
questions, and those differences threaten to divide us. I offer my answers
and reasons in hopes of persuading those who, up to now, have come to different
Should we support the U.S. government passing legislation that in various
ways puts pressure on foreign abusers of human rights—for example, denying
abusive regimes trade benefits, foreign loans, or U.S. support for international
loans? Does it matter how abusive the regime is? Does it matter what form
the pressure takes?
I think one has to decide what role the U.S. government plays in the world
before answering this question. Unfortunately, the collapse of the weaker
“Evil Empire” ten years ago was followed by increasing hegemony of the
more powerful Evil Empire, to the point where U.S. global dominance is
literally unprecedented in world history. What has the U.S. done in the
last decade when communism no longer stood in its way? Has the U.S. government
promoted global peace? Prevented gross violations of human rights? Spurred
economic development in lesser developed economies? Encouraged changes
to protect the environment? Sponsored policies to reduce global inequalities?
Or has the U.S. government, for the most part, done just the opposite while
seizing every opportunity to consolidate and expand U.S. military, economic,
and political power? Was there any difference in deeds, rather than rhetoric,
when Republicans or Democrats occupied the White House? I think anyone
trying to decide if she/he favors U.S. economic sanctions against foreign
governments that violate human or political rights or permit child or slave
labor, needs to first decide if the evidence suggests that the United States
uses its considerable global power in a benign or malevolent way.
Sadly, there is overwhelming evidence that the U.S. has used its unprecedented
global powers since the end of the Cold War to serve the interests of a
minority of its own citizens to the detriment of the interests of the majority
of its own citizens and a majority of people in the rest of the world.
Moreover, the “new Democrats” score no better than Republicans on this
issue, their protestations notwithstanding. When the excuse of protecting
ourselves and the rest of the world from the machinations of the “evil”
Soviet Empire was removed, U.S. imperial behavior only worsened, just as
critics feared and warned it would.
I am not going to review here the evidence from Indonesia and East Timor,
the Persian Gulf and Iraq, Yugoslavia and the Balkans, Rwanda, and the
Congo, and Nicaragua, Cuba, and Colombia. I am not going to review what
has happened to the Pentagon budget after the disappearance of the only
credible military threat to the United States, nor the U.S. role as arms
merchant to the world. Nor am I going to evaluate the logic of neoliberal
U.S. international economic policy and its effect on foreign and U.S. constituencies.
For readers who do not agree with my point of departure, I recommend that
they read Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman and Michael Klare on U.S. foreign and
defense policy since the Cold War. But unless people agree that the U.S.
behaves as a self-serving imperial power, I would not expect them to agree
on whether progressives should support U.S. economic sanctions against
foreign violators of human, political, or labor rights. I start from the
conviction that at present U.S. government international policy will serve
the interests of U.S. elites at the expense of foreigners and ordinary
Americans if need be.
For that reason I think the answer to the above question is “no,” because
it is predictable that more often than not the policy would be applied
in an extremely hypocritical and counter productive way. The pressure would
be applied to governments deemed hostile to U.S. investment and to governments
that stood up to U.S. bullying. The pressure would not be applied to compliant
regimes, no matter how abusive. The “policy” would be used against the
Castro regime in Cuba and the Qadaffi regime in Libya, not against the
Suharto regime in Indonesia or the Mobutu regime in Zaire. The “policy”
would be used to weaken Kabila in the Congo not to prevent genocide in
Rwanda. The policy would be used to extract greater concessions from the
Chinese leadership for U.S. companies rather than to benefit a democratic
opposition committed to social and economic justice in China.
But why shouldn’t U.S. progressives support U.S. government pressure on
regimes that violate human, political, or labor rights—or regimes that
discriminate against racial minorities, women, and/or gays, or regimes
that harm the environment? Even if the pressure is selective, hypocritical,
and self-serving, why refuse to support the U.S. government if it stops
a “crime against humanity” anywhere?
I am not recommending defending any policies that subvert democracy or
justice anywhere, at any time, no matter how staunch an opponent of U.S.
imperialism or how “progressive” the government that carries them out.
U.S. progressives have often made that mistake to our own detriment. It
is not the case that all policies of governments who oppose U.S. imperialism
are good policies, nor the case that all policies of generally good governments
are good policies. Whether it be the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba,
Nicaragua, or Iraq, undeserved apologetics is wrong and counter productive
as well. For example, I can praise Cuban educational and health policies,
I can admire the Cuba government commitment to economic equality and solidarity
with other third world movements for national liberation, and I can acknowledge
that Cuba has been an undeserving victim of punitive U.S. imperial measures
on innumerable occasions, yet I can still criticize restrictions on political
freedoms in Cuba, and Cuban failures to promote economic democracy. As
long as I remember that I am not a Cuban, and therefore I have no “say”
regarding Cuban policy, I do the Cuban revolution no harm by stating my
But there is a difference between progressives voicing honest disagreements
with what we find to be Cuban government violations of political rights,
and progressives supporting U.S. government sanctions against Cuba because
of those alleged violations of political rights. The second is support
for unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of another country,
at minimum, and support for calculated imperial aggression, at maximum.
Moreover, blinding ourselves to the fact that U.S. government support for
human and political rights is hypocritical and that U.S. “humanitarian
intervention” is humanitarian in name only is destructive of the cause
of global human and political rights precisely because the U.S. is not
a benign superpower. Instead, the U.S. government is the major obstacle
to eliminating “crimes against humanity” because we routinely protect violators
in exchange for their fealty, and systematically obstruct efforts to create
an unbiased, democratic international body with effective means for intervention
wherever necessary. Only when intervention against a regime enhances U.S.
imperial power is it pursued. Those who would support the international
defense of human and political rights have one major task: Replace the
U.S. government as sole international judge, jury, and executioner with
an empowered democratic United Nations.
What if the legislation declaring U.S. loans will not go to any countries
that engage in systematic human rights violations?
I don’t think that would make much difference. Look what happens now when
a Democratic administration must certify that the record of the Colombian
government is improving before U.S. military aid can be sent under the
ruse of combating drug trafficking. The Administration lies and Congress
How long will it be before the Chavez government is declared a violator
of human and political rights, not to speak of economic freedoms, if Venezuela
persists in its intent to sell oil to Cuba on generous terms?
When the Ecuadorian economy became a victim of contagion in international
financial markets, when economic conditions deteriorated to the point of
desperation, when the U.S.-educated and supported-president responded by
announcing he was going to proceed with dollarization leaving pensioners
penniless, when a popular uprising led by indigenous peasant organizations,
labor unions, and popular junior officers in the Ecuadorian military deposed
the president and seized the legislature in a bloodless uprising. When
senior military officers were on the brink of declaring loyalty to the
new government, President Clinton’s National Security Advisor phoned the
Ecuadorian chief of staff to tell him the U.S. would never recognize the
new government, and their would be no peace in Ecuador unless the military
backed the vice president who must continue to pursue neoliberal “reforms.”
Within hours the heads of the Ecuadorian Army, Navy, and Air Force declared
their support for the vice president who promised to pursue dollarization,
and the leaders of the uprising fled underground. In the hands the U.S.
government, sanctions become another tool for imperial oppression rather
than an inducement for foreign regimes to respect their citizens’ human,
political, and economic rights.
What about labor rights and support for U.S. laws banning imports of goods
made by child labor or slave labor? Are such laws really protectionism
Such laws, as well as provisions about labor and environmental standards
in WTO treaties given how the WTO operates, can become new vehicles for
protectionism and imperial manipulation. Suppose only violations of labor
or environmental standards are recognized grounds for trade sanctions under
new WTO rules. Effectively, only third world countries would be subject
to complaints. Worse, third world countries would have waived their rights
to retaliation when subjected to protectionist measures disguised as protections
of labor or environmental standards. I
t is important that first world labor unions and environmental organizations
recognize that our third world counterparts have good reason to worry that
such provisions can easily become the new rationale for protectionism at
their expense and for punishing regimes resistant to U.S. imperial policies.
The AFL-CIO was oblivious to this legitimate concern going into Seattle
and angered third world allies in the anti-globalization coalition as a
result. While they did not abandon their call for labor standards in trade
treaties, fortunately the AFL-CIO rethought the issue and passed some important
resolutions reaching out to third world workers at its Executive Council
Meeting February 16-17, 2000 in New Orleans.
Of course it would be a good thing if labor rights were made more secure
and labor standards were improved anywhere in the world. The issue, however,
is whether progressives in the U.S. should pressure the U.S. government
to pass and enforce laws against imports from offending countries or to
insist on such provisions in WTO treaties. I believe there are more effective
and less dangerous ways to achieve this goal and to protect American workers
from competition with third world workers who are even more exploited.
Many third world unions and grassroots organizations appreciate help from
first world progressives in their campaigns for labor rights and standards.
They would like us to help publicize abuses—particularly when our multinational
corporations are the perpetrators. They like any financial or organizational
aid we can provide —with no strings attached. Sometimes they like us to
organize consumer boycotts—when they ask for them. Occasionally, when their
struggle is at a crucial stage, third world movements for human, political,
and labor rights ask us to pressure our governments and/or international
organizations to take up economic sanctions, as was the case in the struggle
against apartheid in South Africa and is now the case in the struggle for
democracy in Burma. But there is a difference between responding to requests
for international solidarity and promoting measures many of our third world
Moreover, precisely because third world workers are terribly exploited,
their employers will pass on much of the cost of improvements in labor
standards achieved through international trade treaties to their employees
in the form of lower wages. Since the primary concern of the AFL-CIO is
to arrest the “race to the bottom” effect of trade liberalization, they
can more effectively protect their interests by supporting programs that
improve the bargaining power of third world workers more than international
labor standards do. For example, campaigns supporting land reform and cessation
of U.S. military aid to totalitarian regimes are far more likely to reduce
the “race to the bottom” effect of international trade. The crucial question
is not whether the initiative for standards or sanctions comes from capitalist
politicians or from the U.S. human rights/labor/left communities. The crucial
question is whether the initiative comes as a request from those we want
to help in third world countries. If so, we should be as responsive as
What about supporting international agreements banning child labor or torture?
Why ask only about child labor and torture? Why not support international
agreements banning any violation of human, political, or economic rights—including
the right to equitable compensation for self-managed labor for that matter.
I think we should support any such international agreements—as long as
there is good reason to believe the agreement would be fairly administered.
But I believe the “fair administration caveat” rules out any international
agreement policed by the WTO, the World Bank, or the IMF at this time.
These institutions, like the U.S. government, cannot at present be trusted
to administer treaties without severe bias. We should instead be trying
to democratize and empower the United Nations, UNCTAD, the ILO, and the
implementing bodies of multilateral environmental agreements that are far
better candidates to negotiate and fairly administer agreements of this
I do not believe this implies that U.S. workers do not have a right to
protect their hard won gains in labor and living standards or that environmentalists
in the U.S. do not have a right to protect the improvements in environmental
quality won in the U.S. over the past 30 years. Quite the contrary, I agree
with those such as Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith who
call for “raising labor, environmental, social, and human rights conditions
for those at the bottom,” as the first of seven planks in their draft program
for globalization from below, and who argue that “ultimately, minimum environmental,
labor, social, and human rights standards must be incorporated in national
and international law.” (Brecher, Costello, and Smith, Globalization from
Below: The Power of Solidarity, South End Press, 2000.)
I believe that trade liberalization, as well as capital liberalization,
does threaten first world environmental and living standards by generating
a “race to the bottom” effect as employers force employees and governments
to either grant them concessions or risk loss of jobs and tax revenues.
Which is why I think workers and environmentalists have chosen wisely to
oppose trade and capital liberalization—a globalization from above that
empowers corporations and the rich at the expense of workers, the poor,
and the environment. But because I believe trade and capital liberalization
will aggravate the race to the bottom effect, I think it unwise for first
world workers and environmentalists to give our consent to further liberalization
in exchange for commitments regarding labor and environmental standards
that would also hasten the “race to the bottom” and would inevitably go
unenforced except when it served U.S. imperial interests. That would be
a “bad trade” on our part, one that sells our third world partners down
the river and divides the coalition against globalization from above as
well. Instead, our stand should be: “No further globalization until it
is done democratically, enhances environmental preservation, distributes
efficiency gains between nations so as to reduce global inequality, and
distributes efficiency gains within nations to reduce internal inequality
Nothing the U.S. government, the IMF, the World Bank, or the WTO is currently
doing comes close to meeting those requirements. Until globalization is
organized to meet those requirements, that is, until there is an equitable,
democratic process capable of putting those gains to good rather than bad
use, the planet and a majority of its inhabitants are better off with less
rather than more globalization. “No more globalization as long as it is
globalization from above rather than from below.”
Robin Hahnel is a professor of economics at American University, a longtime
activist and author of numerous books on politics and economics. His latest
is Panic Rules! (South End Press).