Antoni's Wire Service

Date: Wed, 16 Feb 2000 09:40:07 -0400 (AST)
From: Antoni Wysocki
To: Antoni's Wire Service
Subject: ruminations from Dal: Seattle and the Future of the State

Hey folks,

A panel discussion - encumbered with the somewhat verbose title "Seattle and the Future of the State: the World Trade Organization, Globalization and the New Millenium" - was held at Dalhousie University's Killam Library on February 09. A standing room only crowd of about a hundred people showed up to hear from Pauline Gardiner Barber, Elizabeth May, Catherine Schittecatte, Gil Winham, and "respondent" Michael Bradfield. The panellists were asked to address such questions as: what impact has the World Trade Organization (WTO) had on national sovereignty; why did so many well organized opponents come together to oppose the WTO at its Ministerial Conference in Seattle; and what do the events in Seattle mean for future trade negotiations.

The first speaker of the evening was Gil Winham, lecturer in Political Science at Dalhousie. Winham is an unabashed neoliberal, with excellent credentials. In the run-up to the 1995 G-7 Summit in Halifax, he and Sylvia Ostrey (Canada's delegation head in the Uruguay Round of negotiations which led to the creation of the WTO) jointly edited a volume of essays which read somewhat like a manifesto for globalization. Significantly, the paper which Winham and Ostrey themselves collaboratively produced for the book advocated the drafting of a multilateral agreement on investment. Winham has also served as an arbiter in a dispute settlement action under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

As could be expected, Winham offered a stout defence of the World Trade Organization. From the outset, he rejected as wrongheaded the notion that the WTO infringes on national sovereignty, noting that duly constituted governments have typically fallen over themselves in their rush to submit themselves to the disciplines of this institution. Though he conceded that states have seen their prerogatives reduced in some measure by the WTO, Winham contended that most nations - and particularly the less developed ones - have gained more than they have lost by this process. This is at once evidenced by and explains the continued allure of membership in the WTO - as demonstrated by the eagerness, on the part of countries such as China, to gain accession.

According to Winham, the main benefit of the WTO is that it has gone some way towards reducing the plenipotence enjoyed by the wealthy nations (the European Union, the United States, Japan and Canada; "the Quad" in WTO parlance) in the global economy. He mentioned as an example Costa Rica's successful WTO suit against the US in a matter of textiles. He argued that the consensus, rules-based modality of the world body guaranteed more equitable treatment than unilateral action could offer, and that the sanctions associated with the dispute settlement procedures of the WTO ensured that all members had to play by the rules.

Turning specifically to the WTO's setback in Seattle, Winham was sceptical of claims that the street protests had been a major factor, and was generally dismissive of the demonstrations. Basing his opinion on the comments of a trade diplomat who was present at the Ministerial, Winham indicated that the activists were, by and large, uncouth, ill-informed, and irrelevant.

Instead, Winham placed emphasis on the internal crises that wracked the WTO prior to the Conference: in a word, poor planning on the part of the organizers. He predicted that Seattle would ultimately do little to check the global trend towards liberalization of trade. He also emphasised that, contrary to the impression generated by events in Seattle last December, many parties in the South - he specifically cited the Organization of African States - were highly desirous of seeing the WTO agenda move forward.

If Winham chose to address the evening's thematic inquiries fairly directly, Pauline Gardiner Barber favored a much more elliptical approach. E.g. instead of proffering a "yea" or "nay" on the question of whether the WTO impinges on national sovereignty, Gardiner Barber, a professor of Social Anthropology and International Development Studies at Dal, offered a problematique of the concept of "the state". Specifically, she cautioned against reifying the state, especially in ways which obscure its underlying essence of social relations, and the expression of power thereby.

While to some extent I found Gardiner Barber's remarks interesting and even insightful, I felt overall that her deconstructionist tack was not terribly helpful with the topic at hand. Though Gardiner Barber herself directed some barbs at Winham's laissez-faire stance, with its implicit occlusion of the concerns of the disadvantaged, her heavy reliance on the lexicon of poststructuralism, and reluctance to come to grips with the main points in question, left me rather cold.

Catherine Schittecatte was the third speaker of the night. A Doctoral Candidate in Political Science at Dalhousie, Schittecatte spoke mostly in a personal vein, detailing the results of interviews she had conducted with people who had campaigned against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). She noted that many of those involved in the Seattle protests had first mobilized around the MAI, and that the lessons of the earlier campaign were put to good use in the demonstrations against the WTO MInisterial.

In a manner distinct from, but somewhat reminiscent of Gardiner Barber's approach, Schittecatte did not attempt to provide definitive answers to the forum's key questions. Rather, she emphasised that the protesters themselves perceived Seattle as a victory for mass movements, and that the invigorating effect of this perception was arguably of greater import than the objective validity of their claims of success in derailing the globalization agenda.

I found myself growing increasingly restive through Gardiner Barber's and Schittecatte's disquisitions. Both presentations, it seemed to me, were a touch too amorphous to adequately challenge Gil Winham's no-nonsense version of events; and I was less than pleased to think that the neoliberal view would emerge triumphant!

For all my cavils, I would hasten to add that neither presentation was without merit, and there is much to be said for broadening the scope of inquiry into the globalization debate, as Gardiner Barber and Schittecatte obviously sought to do. Unfortunately, however, the twain were at the same time rather unprepossessing in their delivery. Neither appeared to make a real effort to connect with those in attendance: Gardiner Barber addressed her fellow panellists as often as the audience; while Schittecatte, seeming quite diffident - I found myself wondering if being the odd one out in a panel of PhDs (one of them from her own department, and antipathetic to her views) was perhaps intimidating for her - was scarcely audible.

If at this point it appeared that the evening was in danger of unravelling, the next speaker was just the person to stitch it back together. Elizabeth May - Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada and first occupant of Dalhousie's Elizabeth May (!) Chair in Women's Health and the Environment; doubtless the bestknown member of the panel - is a tremendously intelligent, vivacious and exuberant person, and these qualities were just what was required to get things back on track.

Even in her bearing, May showed from the first that she was ready for action. Where her colleagues had remained seated (out of sight to much of the audience) and taken no obvious pains to project their voices, May at once stood up and moved to a better vantage point, at the same time ensuring that her voice carried the length of the room. Her comments, meanwhile, fully accorded with her demeanour, being at once forceful and engaging.

May led off by challenging the notion that the globalization of trade is an intrinsically modern phenomenon. To the contrary, May observed, in the 19th century the international flow of goods was of a scale that Nova Scotia's vast native forests of oak were completely exhausted by the Royal Navy's demand for the timber for use as masts.

Proceeding to the questions posed by the event's sponsors, May affirmed the view that the WTO does limit national sovereignty. However, she added further, curbing the autonomy of states is not in itself a bad thing. Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs), such as the Basel Convention prohibiting trafficking in hazardous waste, also restrict the power of national governments, and May fully supports accords of this sort.

She finds the WTO's encroachments exceptionable, by contrast, because they benefit only a narrow economic elite (rather than serving the commonweal, in the manner of the MEAs); and because they have been imposed autocratically (whereas the MEAs have typically been arrived at in a fairer fashion). In support of the first thesis, May mentioned a few of the numerous instances where WTO dispute settlement panels have struck down eco-friendly legislation (e.g. banning the mandating of turtle excluder devices for shrimp nets), while pointing to the universally beneficial outcomes offered by MEAs (e.g. anyone who doesn't want to die of skin cancer must be glad of the Montreal Protocol, which outlaws the use of ozone depleting chloro-fluorocarbons). Backing the proposition that the WTO suffers from a "democratic deficit" in contrast to MEAs, May cited such practices as the so-called "Green Room" process common at the WTO. In the Green Room (which is both an actual suite at WTO headquarters in Geneva and a metonym for the kind of parley routinely held there) the Quad, along with a small number of handpicked adjutants, meets to set out policy for the organization, later to present the fruit of these discussions to the plenary as a veritable fait accompli.

In expounding this position, May touched on all the guiding queries of the evening. In terms of the impact of the WTO on the role of the nation state, May asserted that trade authority may - as Gil Winham had contended - have checked somewhat the ability of strong countries to dominate the weaker ones, but only by handing the balance of power to transnational corporations. As these concernments are not answerable, even in principle, to anyone but their shareholders, this has resulted, pace Winham, in a less equitable international order.

Gil Winham seemed to suggest that the protests in Seattle were the work of certain groups with a vested interest in the status quo - presumably, clientilistic labor unions and state-subsidized commercial ventures - aided by nescient technophobes chronically averse to change. However, Elizabeth May's analysis showed that the demonstrators, far from being mere captives of misoneistic prejudice, had good reason to think that the WTO has had a baleful impact overall. In this lay her answer to the question "why so many well organized opponents of the WTO came together in Seattle".

In discussing the unsatisfactory internal workings and external outcomes of WTO praxis, and the reaction this provoked from civil society in Seattle, May looked at likely developments in the future. She indicated that critiques of the WTO have come from many quarters and that there is no unified formula for what to do about this global forum, but suggested that putting the WTO "in a box" was to be considered. She explained that the WTO has no expertise in matters outside international trade law, and yet it routinely infringes on a host of other areas. Therefore, the first order of business was to confine the WTO mandate to its true sphere of competence: by all means, May said, let the WTO exercise power over nation states in cases of pure economic protectionism; but do not let the WTO strike down health and environmental legislation simply because these can be impediments to trade.

May having finished, Michael Bradfield, left with the ticklish task of wrapping up the event, was moved to ask: "How does one follow Elizabeth May?" Given May's tour-de-force, this was not mere aporia - but nonetheless Bradfield proved equal to the test.

Perhaps noting how May's address had been improved by her speaking on her feet, Bradfield likewise rose to deliver his remarks (a small but highly commendable measure, in my opinion). Of a naturally mellow disposition, Bradfield did not attempt to overmatch May's lively style, but instead sensibly continued in his usual low-key but effective manner.

Picking up on Elizabeth May's observations about the fustiness of the whole "globalization" phenomenon, Bradfield, a professor in Economics at Dalhousie, informed the audience that international trade, as a percentage of global economic activity, was actually greater in 1913 than in 1990. As a corollary to this historical note, Bradfield explained that the main reason that the volume of cross-border exchanges was so high prior to World War 1 was that the imperialist powers were busy stripping their colonial possessions and repatriating the booty to the homeland. What we are seeing today is a recreation of those activities; a different name, but identical effects (impoverishment of the masses and degradation of the South).

Bradfield opined that a necessary step in countering these trends was to subject all organs of governance - but preeminently the WTO - to the "RAT" requirement: we must ask, is the institution in question responsible, accountable and transparent? If not, it has no claims to legitimacy, and the people can and must organize against it (which is what Seattle was all about, on Bradfield's view).

Following Michael Bradfield's remarks the floor was opened to questions and comments from the audience. It soon materialized that, for many, the nub of the matter was Bradfield's RAT. One person inquired of Gil Winham how he could contend that WTO delegations adequately represented the interests of their constituents when, for instance, 80% of the work in the developing world is done by women; but almost all senior trade bureaucrats are male. Another individual pointed out that governments even in "advanced" parliamentary democracies (which Winham held up as state of the art systems of governance) routinely ignore the expressed wishes of their populations when trade deals are being negotiated. Meanwhile, voting them out does no good, as opposition parties inevitably hold the same positions as their ostensible opponents. Winham, quoting Winston Churchill, rebutted that: "Democracy is the worst form of government...except, of course, for all the others" - and proposed that to be represented in international trade talks by non-accountable scoundrels must perforce be preferred to being sidelined in the globalization process.

As it happens, an earlier comment made by Michael Bradfield ought to have forestalled this response. Bradfield had already made specific reference to Margaret Thatcher's infamous "TINA" formulation ("there is no alternative") and found it lacking. As Bradfield explained, TINA is nothing more than intellectual bullyism on the part of elites who, lacking rational justification for their actions, must simply forbid people to analyze them.

Clearly, for Winham to speak as if the options available to citizens are to be subject to the whims either of compatriots falsely claiming to represent them, or of the ineluctable and faceless force of the international markets, is just such an attempt to proscribe inconveniently critical thinking. Why, after all, can we not strive to hold politicians accountable, and resist their efforts to further attenuate the democratic process by concentrating power in the hands of the elitist WTO? If this threatens to put us outside the mainstream of globalization so much the better when one sees the emiseration wrought by this phenomenon.

Bradfield dealt explicitly with an analogous case during the question period. At one point, Gil Winham remarked that he had no objections to the breakdown of domestic control of national economies; to be sure, he said, he would rather be taken to hospital in a foreign-owned but efficient ambulance, which would do the job right, than a state-run outfit that was apt to bungle the job.

While Winham's statement seems sensible (if unpatriotic) on the face of it, Michael Bradfield argued that this was an instance of begging the question. Why, Bradfield wanted to know, must we accept these options as static? Change the underlying conditions - e.g. putting adequate public monies into health care spending - and it is no longer a choice between functional private and dysfunctional public services.

All in all, I found the evening's discussion quite stimulating. The Dalhousie Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, which sponsored the event, and Marjorie Stone, a professor in English and Women's Studies at Dal who acted as preses, are to be commended. If some of the presentations struck me as a touch uneven, I think each of the participants nonetheless provided a unique and valuable perspective on the issues.

Finally, it may be appropriate to make special mention of Gil Winham. Given the weakness of the material he had to work with (neoclassical economic assumptions nested in neoliberal political theory) Winham did a remarkable job of upholding his end of the debate. Winham, I might note, has done similar work on previous occasions: during the MAI fight a few years back, he was the main champion of the treaty locally. One must give the man his due for his willingness to defend such views amidst those bound to have very little time for them.