Global Policy Forum

In the Aftermath of Seattle:


By Tom Barry

In Focus
October 3,2000

Although the violence in Seattle was widely condemned by citizen leaders, much of the rhetoric used by these same leaders fosters a violent backlash. Clearly, the militancy of the demonstrations has successfully focused media—and to some degree public—attention on the institutions of global economic governance. There is also growing recognition by global leaders that the negative impacts of globalization need to be addressed. Seeing this success, antiglobalization groups have adopted "shut it down" strategies at international meetings of globalization forums and institutions. The hope was that successive Seattle-modeled protests would delegitimize the institutions of global governance and draw in greater numbers of disaffected citizen groups, coalescing them into a truly international movement that can turn around globalization.

The analysts associated with this movement often lend intellectual support to the anarchist backlash on the streets. In his recent book, American University professor Robin Hahnel, a frequent contributor to Z magazine, writes: "We must act like Lilliputian Luddites first and stop corporate-sponsored globalization by any means necessary." For many in the antiglobalization movement, this campaign against globalization is the defining struggle of our era—a life and death struggle that requires all means necessary to stop corporate forces.

One possibility is that such a backlash movement could indeed be successful at undermining the credibility and legitimacy of current institutions. In the process of stressing the importance of national sovereignty and local development, such a movement may also help build a global consensus against all forms of global governance—a frightening scenario. Another possibility is that the media and public will grow weary of street demonstrations of disaffected youth, the message of the reformers will be lost in the cacophony of street battles, and the concerns and positive agendas of the antiglobalziation coalition will be dismissed.

In the aftermath of DC, Melbourne, and Prague, it is time to ask what the agenda of this movement is with respect to multilateral global governance. The movement makes reference to the power of the U.S. Treasury and the Washington-to-Wall Street axis of power in corporate-led globalization. But the protests have focused not on America's central role, but on the institutions of multilateral governance that include most of the world's governments. In the U.S., this anti-global governance strategy has great resonance with those among the left and the right who appeal to the sanctity of national sovereignty.

One of the most striking inconsistencies among progressives is their ambivalent embrace of multilateralism. In the political/security arena, multilateralism is supported as the only viable method for advancing international peace and security. Multilateralism in the form of the UN is strongly supported, and unilateralism by the U.S. is consistently condemned. The citizen movements focusing on global economic issues make no such principled declaration in support of multilateral governance, however. The political leaders of other nations, like those of the U.S., are regarded to be the servants of corporate and elite rule. When making the critique that the current governance institutions are incapable of reform, many global economy activists do not at the same time assert that some form of multilateral economic governance is fundamentally important.

The succession this year of attempts to shut down the multilateral institutions should raise serious questions about just where the global economy movement is going.

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