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Meeting the Political Challenge to Globalization



By Richard Falk
Princeton University. TFF associate


"The Battle of Seattle" that occurred during the recent meeting of the WTO in Seattle needs to be understood as the first crisis of globalization that poses a political challenge. The Asian financial crisis more than two years earlier was mainly a regional crisis of an economic character despite its wider reverberations in Japan, Russia, Brazil. The control mechanisms proved reasonably effective, and an Asian recovery is underway without any pressure for deep substantive reforms. We hear less and less talk about "a new financial architecture" in the last several months. Perhaps, there is more awareness of the importance of sound banking systems and a less dogmatic attitude toward fiscal policy on the part of the World Bank and IMF to avoid the sort of social trauma that especially befell Indonesia after 1997.

But Seattle was a different and shriller alarm bell. It occurred in the city of Microsoft, Starbucks, and Boeing, three of the symbolic giants of a globalizing world. It created anew images of civil society at war with the established order, but this time over the character and nature of global capitalism. Unlike the Asian financial crisis, this time the core concerns in the streets and in the meeting halls were not primarily about the economic viability of globalization, but about the political acceptability of global economic governance.

Putting to one side, the anarchists, relics of the old left, who smashed some storefronts associated with global capitalism. And putting to the other side, some familiar complaints by governments of the South that the WTO was administering regimes of "unfair trade." These issues can be put aside because they were neither new nor fundamental challenges directed at globalization. What was new, and at the core of the events at Seattle, was the insistence that if globalization is to go forward, its managers must apply many of the same democratic principles in the international policy arenas that shape the globalization agenda that it ardently supports for state/society relations.

Of course, it is possible to contend that mob in the street is of no political weight, and that they have their political arithmetic backwards. Such was the argument put forward by "the end of history" pundit, Francis Fukuyama. His main claim, echoed by an array of influential mainstream editorials, was that the progressive protesters have it all wrong, that globalization has been of great help to the poor of the world, that its effects have achieved far more equity than either socialist or welfare-oriented governments ever managed. Even socialist China has acknowledged this role of the world market by doing its best to become a full participant, including membership in the WTO.

Of course, there is considerable economic merit in this message to the protesters, but it mainly misses the point. The protest was less about economics than about politics. The bottom line can be summarized: "It's democracy, stupid!" And here, it is important to recognize the dual nature of the opposition to the WTO operation: those making noise in the streets were on a parallel path to the angry complaints of many governmental representatives inside the meeting halls. These latter complaints were directed at "the green room" tactics of the dominant rich countries was shutting them out from meaningful participation in WTO agenda-setting and policy-making. In effect, the WTO was being run by a small, secretive, unelected, and unaccountable club of countries dominated by the United States.

This inter-governmental line of complaint converged with the allegations of the protesters in the streets, but it was far from identical. The activist NGO consensus was formed around the idea that the WTO, as a whole was encroaching upon the sovereign rights of the peoples of the world, that it had usurped constitutional rights of citizens everywhere, and that it was operating in a manner that had some of the trappings of an oppressive form of "world government." These criticisms mix perceptions with fears, and do seem to exaggerate both the nature of the WTO, and its capabilities. Politically, this set of views is an inversion of normal progressive politics, as it puts forward a defense of the state and the idea of sovereignty rather than the more usual leftist attack. But if carefully considered, the relation between power and politics is being transformed by globalization. The state, if responsive to its citizenry, now becomes a source of resistance to the growing fears associated with abusive globalization. In an important sense, post-cold war politics is mainly about an emergent struggle to control the way in which the state mediates between global market priorities and the interests of its territorial citizenry.

In this respect, the wavering of Bill Clinton suggests a change in the direction of the prevailing wind. Clinton's approach to being "a new Democrat" through most of his presidency has been to go all out to promote economic globalization, defying many traditional interests of his party in pushing for the ratification of NAFTA and in championing the WTO. But at Seattle Clinton flinched, expressing sympathy, verging on solidarity, for the demands of organized labor and of those calling for democratization of the WTO.

This question of democracy is surfacing now as a contested issue. Many influential commentators insisted that the global trend toward democracy was the most significant and hopeful achievement of the century just ended, but their point of reference was public order internal to the state. It was an endorsement of constitutionalism relating to elections, free speech, and human rights generally, for all peoples. Such enthusiasm for democracy was shared by most protesters in Seattle, but their view of the scope and emphasis of democracy was decidedly more globalized. These protesters wanted democratic ideas of participation, accountability, and transparency to extend to international institutions, and especially to those concerned with the shaping of global economic policy. They were objecting to elitism in the WTO, and elsewhere, and to the tendency of global market forces to override the priorities and interests of nation-states.

Unlike the Asian financial crisis, there is no economic "fix" for the troubles in Seattle. The challenge is to find a political fix that commands widespread societal support. It is possible to move toward more representative procedures within the WTO, IMF, and elsewhere, and this would meet part of the criticism. It would also seem feasible to operate with far greater openness, and with more responsiveness to the concerns of economically distressed countries. What may be more difficult to address is the demand that international standards in relation to labor be implemented in the developing countries, and that environmental protection in the North take precedence over considerations of world trade.

An important part of the challenge is a matter of better public relations. It is encouraging in this respect that so many leading global corporations have come to realize that their profitability is bound up with their reputation as respectful of social and environmental concerns. The mood at Davos was shaken the last couple of years by the Asian financial crisis, and will undoubtedly be shaken this year even more by Seattle. As the MIT economist, Paul Krugman, sagely notes, the forward thrust of globalization will not be sustained unless those who control the play of global market forces find ways to engage a far larger part of the public throughout the world in the belief that the world economic system is not only economically beneficial, but that it is also working in a manner that is consistent with their political beliefs and values.



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