Global Policy Forum

Is This Any Way To Run A Globe?


By R. C. Longworth

St. Paul Pioneer Press
August 14, 2001

On the inside are the leaders, the presidents and prime ministers and their aides, blockaded behind mesh fences and clouds of tear gas, writing the new rules of the global economy in the atmosphere of a medieval siege.

On the outside are the led, some of them on the scene, actually choking on the tear gas, others watching at home, most of them sensing that those new rules are not what they would write, if anybody asked them.

Is this any way to run a globe?

Organized global protest began only about 20 months ago, when the first rock went through a Starbucks window in Seattle. The Seattle protests not only helped defeat plans for a new round of world trade talks. In the uproar, the public first became aware that something really important -- the organization of globalization -- was going on.

Things haven't advanced much since then. Global governance, as this new rule-writing is called, is still mostly a closed and undemocratic process, done in private by experts and elites. Global protest, which is what the opposition amounts to, is public but chaotic, also basically undemocratic -- who elected those protesters, anyway? -- and almost as baffling to a public that has such a large stake in the outcome.

It's time to move on to a real debate, to open up some more chairs at the rule-writing table, and to define some intellectual battle lines.

Everyone knows what one side -- the First World governments, led by the United States, and the giant global corporations -- wants. Their agenda is summed up in what has become known as the Washington Consensus -- free trade and investment, free flow of money, deregulation, privatization, protection of property rights, low taxes. In short, free markets.

Exactly what the doubters and protesters on the other side want is less clear. They all believe an unbelted free market sacrifices social and human rights to the bottom line. But beyond that, they want so many different things, and oppose so many different things, that the message is too muddled to be the rallying cry for their movement.

Some are environmentalists and fear that global corporations take advantage of weak environmental laws in Third World countries. Others worry about Third World workers laboring in sweatshops. Still others fear that those same workers are taking well-paid jobs from American workers.

Human-rights advocates see corporations bankrolling dictators or perpetuating poverty and inequality. There are those who want free immigration and those who want tighter borders. Some see global laws overriding local laws, or global courts superseding local courts. There are women's groups, and student groups, and groups to protect dolphins, or trees, or local traditions, or to make sure that no soccer balls are made with child labor.

All are serious issues, and each group makes persuasive points. The diversity underscores the fact that globalization is an immensely powerful force that touches every part of life.

But there's no focus and in political battles, focus counts.

We're not just talking about bumper stickers, or headlines. Basically, we're talking politics -- who writes the rules and makes the laws that frame our lives.

Until now, all this has been done at the national level, and we had national political forums in which competing interests fought and compromised. Now these battles have gone global, but no global forums exist in which political opponents can meet on equal terms.

Seattle opened the debate on the question. The subject of the debate is whether there is going to be some form of global democracy, and what shape it will take.

There's no doubt that there's a broad constituency ready to respond to the protesters' platform. Polls have shown that many Americans, perhaps a majority, worry about globalization and its direction.

But few of these people are ready to join a parade until they know where it is going. The protest movement offers little leadership.

A few protesters, of course, are the anarchists and other violent protesters, drawn more by the promise of a dustup with the police than by the issues themselves. Others are zealous anti-globalizers who doubt that globalization is here to stay or who are ideologically anti-market and anti-capitalism.

This sort of thing distresses the more serious protesters. They fear being tarred with the brush of violence and worry that their message is being drowned out by the violence.

Almost all recognize that globalization is a fact and the real debate is over its eventual form. Most favor free markets as the basis for an economy, but oppose what Barber calls "wild capitalism," unregulated and uncivilized by democratic government and the needs of society.

All this is incredibly new.

The Internet, which makes both globalization and global protest possible, became widely used barely seven years ago. The protest movement took off less than two years ago, and global governance itself is just now registering as a public issue.

This battle has only begun.


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