Anti-Globalization Activists Change the Debate

In late December, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick gathered journalists in his conference room for a little valedictory on 2001. He reminded us that opponents of free trade had, at the beginning of 2001, "felt an increasing confidence that they could paralyze the international trade and economic system."

The Progressive Policy Institute, the centrist think tank linked to the Clinton-founded Democratic Leadership Council, echoed the line in January, saying the anti-globalization movement, as it has become known, was "destined for irrelevance." PPI also parrotted a common line: that the surge of patriotism after September 11 had made anti-globalization protests untenable.

The anti-globalization crowd, it seems, are now a bunch of wacko anklebiters whose 15 minutes of fame are up. It was a classic case of Washington operators trying to spin opinion into reality. If the media believe the movement is dead, it will die.

Here's a counter-thesis: The more the Washington establishment believes that the crazy-quilt of groups that make up this amorphous movement are history, the greater chance these unions, environmentalists, consumer advocates, glassy-eyed tokers and, yes, black-clad anarchists, will matter.

Zoellick had two key accomplishments behind him from 2001 and they are not trivial by any means. In November, the United States led a successful effort to pick up the pieces in the World Trade Organization and kick off a new round of negotiations, an effort that had failed miserably two years earlier in Seattle, where protestors seized the agenda. Also, the U.S. House passed fast-track negotiating authority, which will allow Zoellick to negotiate a Free Trade Area of the Americas, essentially an expansion of NAFTA, once the Senate follows suit (which it expected to do soon).

I remember laughing inside during Zoellick's press conference because this was the same guy who, early in his tenure, announced that he wanted to create a "toolbox" for promoting strong labor and environmental standards via trade policy. It was a longstanding demand of the anti-globalization crowd, backed up in more moderate form by congressional Democrats and some union-state Republicans. Zoellick also backed a fast-track bill that contains rules on incorporating labor and environmental rules into trade agreeements.

What's more, Zoellick also spent much of his time at the WTO meeting in Qatar last year making a deal that would let poor nations flexibly interpret patent rules to help them treat victims of AIDS, tuberulosis and malaria with lower-cost drugs. This had also been a major demand of consumer groups.

In short, times had changed and the Republican trade representative spent last year changing with the times in order to achieve his goals. Zoellick's code for this strategy in his speeches is "aligning trade policy with our values," a line that co-opts a cherished conservative theme ("values") for pragmatic ends.

The point is not that Zoellick cut deals that pleased unions, environmentalists, consumer advocates and the like. But he was responding to pressure that this loose coalition of groups had been bringing to bear for the last five years. And in this respect, Zoellick was not alone. By the end of 2000, before Zoellick had even taken office, the Washington trade establishment was starting to sound a little like its opponents.

The National Association of Manufacturers had started debating how to incorporate labor and environmental issues into trade agreements. Most significantly, the Business Rountable, an extremely influential group of CEOs, had told their Washington lobbyists that the labor-environment problem had lingered on for long enough. They wanted a solution.

This evolution of the debate in Washington, I believe, results from years of protest by the anti-globalization movement. It's hard to draw bright lines, but a reasonable synoposis goes like this: Unorthodox methods that are not familiar to official Washington can and do work.

"What we do well is creativity," Scott Nova, the former director of Citizens Trade Campaign, a microcosm of the Seattle Coalition that includes lots of groups, told me once.

The activists have logged countless hours in meetings with local and national environmental groups, union locals, student activists and middle-class citizen-activists around the country. Sooner or later, this sort of work, flying way under the radar, will be felt in Washington. In a way it's a comforting sign that, for all the complaints, democracy still works in this country of limited government more or less like its cool-headed founders hoped it would: slowly and with great effort.

Whether the anti-globalization movement matters in the future will depend more on external forces that the movement itself. The movement saw success in helping to defeat fast-track in 1997 and a new trade round at Seattle because it was able to feed the existing rifts among Republicans and Democrats, rich nations and poor ones, until both projects imploded.

And while I'm skeptical that the anti-globalization movement can move mountains, I always keep my ear to the ground. Democrats and Republicans will always bicker. A president with many things on his mind -- not the least, a war -- could easily lose interest in the heavy lifting required to make free-trade policies stick.

At that point, the situation becomes very fluid, and a window opens up for the anti-globalization movement. Tanking the trade agreements of the future won't take 20,000 demonstrators rioting in the streets. All it will take is a few smart activists in Washington. And they didn't leave town after September 11.
Carter Dougherty covers trade issues for The Washington Times.


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