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Falling Down in Qatar?

If this week's WTO meeting in Qatar fails, it won't be because of street protests or media scrutiny, but because international trade has been transformed in the the post-9/11 age.
 
 
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The latest World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar resembles the previous WTO meeting in Seattle about as much as Hollywood musicals resemble film noir. They might live in the same universe of substance, but they are galaxies apart in style.

In Doha, there have been almost no street protests, as an assembly of more than five people is illegal in this conservative Gulf emirate. Trade ministers and corporate heads are thus not racing through gauntlets of activists, but are sealed within a gulf shore complex surrounded by Qatari troops in purple camouflage and security guards in flowing white robes ready to defeat any hint of terrorism. Also, the world's booming economies have been replaced by teetering ones. The World Bank reported last week that international trade growth in 2001 was an anemic 1 percent compared to last year's 13.

Globalization also has a different connotation than it did in 1999. No longer is it easy to label those who oppose trade restrictions, such as those on genetically modified food or on the opening of agricultural markets, as violently anarchistic, technologically backward dunderheads. (I think here of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's amazingly simplistic accusations.)

Rather, globalization has a new, and much more dangerous, foe: the Islamic fundamentalism of Osama bin Laden, who has turned "globalization" once more on its head, by aligning it not just with American economic hegemony but with the very idea of modernity, which, according to bin Laden, is an immoral force that has millions of opponents in the Arab world.

Basically, the globalization debate has been dusted by the threat of terror: economic, political and just plain mortal.

So it is a new, more complex world that those in the Doha convention hall look out on. Yet some issues remain the same. Developing nations may still prevent the new round of trade liberalization negotiations from going forward if, as in Seattle, they are treated like second-class citizens and refused trade conditions that allow them, particularly, to overrule medical patents when public health is at stake or to protect their farmers from economically catastrophic food dumps.

Those who oppose the lack of transparency and equity of the WTO negotiations -- as well as the impoverishing impacts of trade liberalization -- have also put on their battle gear. Small but vociferous demonstrations against the WTO are being held in cities around the world (see protest.net/qatar.html for more information). And there is even some dissent in Doha, where Jose Bove, the French anti-McDonalds activist, can be found chanting with the few hundreds activists who could afford the $3,000 plane ride, "What do we want? Democracy!"

No one can say, "All eyes are on Qatar," however. Coverage of the largest and most important international trade meeting has been scant in the U.S. The exceptions are stories about China's entry into the WTO, which could increase American exports by $2 billion annually, and the debate over patents on AIDS drugs for countries like Kenya, which face a cataclysmic health crisis. Even the most admirable publicity stunt on the part of activists -- the sailing of Greenpeace's boat, The Rainbow Warrior, into Doha's harbor with five "trade witnesses" -- has not really piqued the U.S. news media's interest.

"We've had a huge amount of publicity and a huge amount of media interest from the European, Asian and local press," said Sara Holden, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace from aboard the Rainbow Warrior. "The United States media seems to be completely caught up in covering the war."

Holden's group emphasizes that the WTO should use itself as a force for good, since that's why it claims to exist. "In its rules and charter," said Holden, "the WTO states it works toward trade that will achieve sustainable development. Our belief is that unless you take environmental issues into consideration, you cannot possibly claim that you are working toward sustainable development."

For that reason, Greenpeace is using its floating PR platform to publicize two messages: one, that the WTO should pressure the U.S. to ratify the carbon emissions-cutting Kyoto Protocol (which President Bush rejected in March on the grounds that such climate control would hurt the U.S. economy); and two, that the WTO should cease punishing developing nations for environmental and labor protections.

Holden raised the example of a recent WTO ruling in which the European Union was forced to pay $190 million a year in compensation to U.S. exporters for refusing imports of GMO-laden seeds. Sri Lanka was also penalized for its parliamentary decision not to allow GMO imports, though it was compelled to retract that decision since it could not afford the yearly bill of $190 million.

How will the 4th ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization end? Probably not with either of Greenpeace's goals met, or with the end of GMO penalizations. A new round of trade liberalization meetings may not even occur after Doha. In a Nov. 7 AlterNet article, former secretary of labor Robert Reich argued: "[D]on't expect a major new round of global trade talks to emerge from the World Trade Organization meetings ... Many poorer nations are feeling the double punch of a slowing global economy and political unrest at home. They want rich nations to open their borders to exports of agricultural commodities, textiles and steel. But rich nations, including the United States, aren't in any mood" -- because, explains Reich, their own economies are wobbling and terrorism has put brakes on open borders.

Add to this the fact that the anti-corporate globalization protest movement has, since 1999, put a blazoning spotlight on the imbalance of trade between rich and poor countries. Last week, the World Bank, in its continued effort to support (at least rhetorically) growth for all, released a report stating that trading rights are skewed toward the rich. The Bank advocated that talks in Doha focus on agriculture, textiles and clothing -- the main exports of the poor -- to bring developing nations an income of $1.3 trillion over 10 years.

It is doubtful Robert Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative, is sitting around figuring out how to implement the World Bank's study, though he has been busy negotiating anti-dumping rules and meeting with trade representatives on the question of public health exceptions to patent rules. This signals that to advance the interests of U.S. trade -- specifically, the opening of markets to U.S. goods -- he may be forced to make concessions. Implying the uncertainty of the WTO talk's progress, Zoellick has argued that the new ministerial round is a "test of world leadership." He and other trade representatives from rich nations speak of something called the "bicycle theory" of trade -- the need to move forward to keep from falling down.

Falling down may prove a symbolic victory for those who oppose the WTO. But it will not come as a result of activists' demands to link trade to improved labor standards, environmental protections or health care -- or the call, that has been somewhat heeded, to have more participation from civil society in the trade negotiations. Rather, the falling down will be viewed as yet another outcome of the terror-plus-recession knot, in which progressive issues get the least attention, the least public and government pressure and thus the least chance for action.

Watch this week for an eyewitness report on the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha by Lori Wallach, head of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

Tamara Straus is the senior editor of AlterNet.org.