Global Policy Forum

The Paradox of Anti-Globalization



By Guy Verhofstadt

September 28, 2001

A message to the anti-globalization protesters,

In Seattle, Gothenburg and Genoa tens of thousands of you took to the streets to express your views - a real breath of fresh air in this post-ideological age.

If only there had not been all that meaningless violence we could almost have applauded you. Anti-globalization protests are a welcome cross-current at a time when political life has become rather dull, sterile and technocratic.

But what is your actual message? And what is suddenly so wrong with globalization? Until recently even progressive intellectuals were singing the praises of a worldwide market, which, they said, would bring prosperity to countries where before there was only poverty and decline. And they were right. Experience has shown that the per capita income of a country's population rises by 1% for every 1% that it opens up its economy.

Prior to Seattle, globalization was not a sin but a blessing for mankind. This was in stark contrast to the dissenting voices on the far right that bemoaned the loss of identity in a globalised world. But ever since Seattle, you have been shunning globalism as if it were a modern-day form of bubonic plague, sowing poverty and ruin. Of course, globalization, as a movement that disregards national borders, can easily deteriorate into a form of "selfishness without frontiers".

For the rich west, free trade is naturally something that should be embraced wholeheartedly - as long as it is not in products that can harm western economies. No sugar from third world countries. No textiles or manufactured garments from North Africa. In this regard, then, your anti-globalization protests are well founded. The much vaunted free world trade moves largely in one direction: from the rich northern countries to the poor south.

But I would also like to point out a number of contradictions in your way of thinking.

Many of you feel that everything must return to a small, local scale. We must go back to the local market, to the local community. And yet not when it comes to migration.

Then, globalization suddenly becomes an aim. Large numbers of homeless people drift along the borders of Europe and North America, staring wide-eyed into the shop window of a prosperous society. Millions of illegal immigrants live as homeless pariahs, in pitiful conditions, hoping against hope that somehow they can tap into western riches. But it is precisely the absence of free trade and investment that drives them to the west in the first place.

Another contradiction resides in the fact that, while opposing globalization, you strongly urge tolerance towards lifestyle diversity. Surely, we owe the fact that we live in a multicultural and tolerant society to the process of globalization?

I thought that nostalgia for the narrow-minded societies of our forefathers was the sole domain of conservatives who glorify the past, of extreme rightwingers who believe in the superiority of their own race, and of religious fanatics who live and die by the Bible or the Koran.

You are asking many of the right questions. But do you have the right answers? Nobody now denies the existence of climate change and global warming. But such issues can only be dealt with through global commitments.

I do not think it makes any sense to be unreservedly for or against globalization. The question is rather how everybody, including the poor, can benefit from the manifest advantages of globalization without suffering from any of its disadvantages.

When can we be sure that globalization will benefit not only the happy few but also the massed ranks of the third world's poor? To find the right solutions to these valid questions we need more globalization, not less. That was exactly the point of James Tobin. That is the paradox of anti-globalization. Globalization can, after all, serve the cause of good just as much as it can serve the cause of evil.

The challenge that we are faced with today is not how to thwart globalization but instead how to give it an ethical foundation. What we need is a global ethical approach to the environment, labor relations and monetary policy.

I call this "ethical globalization", a triangle of free trade, knowledge and democracy; alternatively, trade, aid and conflict prevention. Democracy and respect for human rights are the only sustainable ways of avoiding violence and war and of achieving trade and prosperity. Moreover, increased aid is needed from the rich west. It is shameful that more than 1.2bn people still do not have access to medical care or a decent education.

Trade alone will not be enough to solve the problems of the least developed nations. Even with more trade there is still a need for increased development cooperation to build harbors and roads, schools and hospitals, and to construct a stable legal system.

Finally, world trade needs to be further liberalized. If all world markets were fully opened up to competition then the total income of developing countries would be boosted by $700bn (£477bn) per year; 14 times the total development aid that they currently receive. No more dumping of western agricultural surpluses on third world markets. No more exceptions for bananas, rice or sugar. The only trade ban would be on weapons. "Everything but arms" must be the motto of all future negotiating rounds of the World Trade Organization.

More free trade, more democracy, greater respect for human rights and more development aid: is that enough to make ethical globalization a reality? Certainly not!

What is missing is a powerful instrument to enforce it. We need a global political body that is as powerful as the globalised market in which we already live.

The G8 of the rich countries must be replaced by a G8 of existing regional partnerships. A G8 where the south is given an important and deserved place at the table to ensure that economic globalization is headed in the right direction. This new G8 can and must be a place where binding agreements on global ethical standards on working conditions, intellectual property and good governance can be entered into.

We saw such a process emerge in an embryonic stage at the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in Bonn, where finally a breakthrough was made as a result of agreements between the Umbrella Group; the European Union and the group of less developed countries, against the wishes of the greatest power on earth, the USA. But of course we do not need to wait for the first meeting of the new G8 to begin the process of ethical globalism. We could start in our own European backyard.

Why shouldn't we systematically test every decision made in the European Union for its impact on the weakest societies on earth? Does it widen or narrow the gulf between the rich Northern countries and the poor south? What is the result of this decision - or of the lack of a decision - on worldwide ecological problems? And why shouldn't we call for an opinion from a high-level non-European body?

Because in this respect you are absolutely right. Even when we are driven by the very best intentions, it is only natural for us to be more concerned with the interests of a multinational oil company or of the European sugar beet farmers than with the fate of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta or the meager incomes of workers on sugar cane plantations in Costa Rica.


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