As North American activists prepare for protests around the forthcoming WTO meetings, it is worth pausing to reflect on the need for continued organization against a body that has come under attack by its own masters. The WTO symbolizes corporate hegemony and along with the IMF and the World Bank, represents the face of the enemy for several million around the world. However, it might be argued that recent developments necessitate a re-evaluation of our attitude towards such bodies. After all, when the US itself is undermining the UN and the WTO while leaning towards increasing unilateralism, are we not playing into its hands by doing for it, what it wants anyway?
While the US undermining of the UN during the Iraq war has been much commented upon, we similarly need to analyse the unilateralist push that the current administration has undertaken in the trade arena to respond well to a changing situation. Unlike the UN Security Council, the WTO, created in 1995, has a relatively more democratic structure where one country equals one vote. It also has an arbitration system that has allowed countries like Cost Rica, Venezuela and Chile to force US to change some policies or pay sanctions in compensation.
Notwithstanding the pressure that the dominant countries can exert on the poorer countries of the world during the decision making process, some potential exists for unified action on part of the third world countries at the WTO. And this is what happened to some extent in the Doha round where the third world countries gained two major concessions: they could bypass patent laws on medicines in the face of a major health problem, and the rich world agreed to slowly eliminate subsidies to its agricultural sector.
Both these concessions are well within the â€˜free tradeâ€™ paradigm and do not challenge the fundamental concepts of corporate globalisation. However, they do challenge the established practice of corporate globalisation, which is increasingly impatient with any slow down in pace.
This is evidenced by the flat refusal of the US to honour these commitments at the WTO meeting in Geneva in February this year. A crude attempt at legitimising its position was made by the US when it insisted on an interpretation of the agreement that virtually nullified it. It was evident that the $60 million donated by the pharmaceutical companies to the Republican election victory has not been in vain. The US also has a powerful agri-business lobby that has worked against any reduction in subsidies to its industry.
In addition to the broken promises made to the developing countries is the betrayal of former brethren in imperialism. The US governmentâ€™s decision to impose tariffs on steel imports into the US has angered European countries, for whom, the US is a major market. In addition, in May the US launched a formal legal challenge at the WTO to force the EU to buy more GM seeds and food. This is likely to destabilize the WTO even further because even if the WTO eventually sides with the US, it will be extremely difficult to impose that order as European consumers continue to boycott GM food. Poll after poll conducted in European countries shows that consumers are overwhelmingly against GM food.
All this has led to a break down in talks and the WTO meeting set to take place in Montreal in July is expected to re-activate the negotiations.
But rejuvenating these negotiations may not be a priority for the Bush administration even as it puts forward more ambitious proposals for trade liberalization through the WTO. The US government has also started pursuing bilateral treaties with countries where it can be sure of getting a better deal, and quicker, than through the WTO. Most recently, this has included bilateral deals with Singapore and Chile with more favourable terms for US firms than would have been possible in a multilateral agreement.
These US actions are leading to a paradoxical situation in some ways. If the WTO is being undermined by the US anyway, is it worth putting the effort into organizing against it? In the age of increasing US unilateralism should we not try to save the multilateral institutions that at least have some potential for improvement? ?
The answers, I believe, are yes and no respectively. We must organize against the WTO as long as it acts as an agent of corporate hegemony. Multilateral institutions like the WTO are formed to facilitate the opening up of markets to multinational corporations. Together with unrepresentative, repressive elites of third world countries, who are eager to plunder their own people, these multinationals use WTO to put veils of legitimacy over their naked greed.
Even if it is more democratic than other multilateral bodies, the WTO is still far from being a forum where the third world masses are represented. The finance ministers wearing Armani and Zegna suits have already bought into the multinational philosophy. If the WTO is impeding the rapid progress of the US multinationals, it is no thanks to these ministers. Instead, it is due to the relentless resistance offered by the anti-globalisation activists that the Bush administration is choosing to bypass the WTO. The fact that this weapon of imperialism is becoming a blunt tool in the hands of the empire is a success for the activists and this knowledge should propel the activists to new successes.
What activists must realize is that the increasing US unilateralism may seem like regression in the short term, but is a sign of victory in the long run. While it is true that the bilateral treaties will allow US firms more favourable terms with some countries, the process of coercing, and cajoling each country individually reflects the failure of the US to mobilize collective support for its hegemony. This is why forums like WTO were created in the first place. They add the requisite legitimacy to corporate plunder of third world economies. Their absence threatens to strip away the legitimacy from these deals.
It may be that the visibility that it provides no longer suits the Western powers, but the WTO is not dead yet. And it is still an instrument of imperialism. And as long as it remains that, we must organize against it. But we must also understand that WTO is merely an instrument. It may easily be discarded and new ones adopted. The important point is to realize the underlying philosophy, and as long as that philosophy is not defeated, it will keep raising its ugly head in different faces.
Major demonstrations against the WTO are being planned in Sacramento, Montreal, and Cancun. ZNet will be carrying reports and analysis on its Global Econ page.