An emerging trade barrier

An emerging trade barrier

There was irony in President Bush's decision this month to rescind his steel tariffs in the face of retaliation by the European Union. On the one hand, the decision was a landmark boost for the WTO legal system, showing that the fledgling system has the power to force compliance from the world's largest economy. On the other hand, though the decision may have been a historic endorsement of the concept of a trading system based on multilateral rules, it comes at a time when talks to expand that system seem to be at more of a standstill than they've been in years.

When developing nations stormed out of the Cancun ministerial meeting in September, it was a watershed in some ways equal and opposite to Bush's recision of the steel tariffs. Never before had the world's most-powerful nation buckled under the threat of trade retaliation. Never before also had such a high-level trade meeting collapsed in such spectacular fashion. The demise of Cancun begs the question of whether what is at work is a simple disagreement over thorny issues such as agriculture, or something bigger. I believe it's the latter.

In the mid-1990s when I was the JoC correspondent in San Francisco, I attended a so-called teach-in that was held at Berkeley to protest globalization. It was the first time I witnessed the now-familiar cacophony of protesters and agendas that now guarantee a police presence at every major international policy gathering.

It was simple enough to identify the many agendas present, whether that was protecting indigenous cultures, ending global warming, halting the spread of AIDS, guaranteeing human rights for women or reining in transnational corporations. Many seemed to be protesting everything at once, an outpouring of some ill-defined frustration perhaps unrelated to any named cause.

But what was more difficult to pinpoint was an explanation for what brought these forces together, and why they have now morphed into a global protest movement. It's too simple to dismiss this grassroots movement as the pent-up frustrations of a listless younger generation or a spontaneous revitalization of 1960s-style activism. It's too easy to point out the contradictions - affluent city dwellers protesting pennies-a-day wages in Asia while living off the everyday low prices at Wal-Mart. However true, these are red herrings that divert attention from the tangible impact of this uprising: To say its voice was not being heard by the officials who walked out of the Cancun talks and set back trade liberalization possibly by years would be to deny reality.

What is at work here is something larger and more important, one with lasting implications for the development of world trade. We are witnessing the emergence of a world democracy, the creation of a global body politic. If the WTO, the World Economic Forum, or the International Monetary Fund-World Bank represent as close as the world has today to global governance, their counterpart must be the global-governed - those who relate as citizens not just to their own countries but to the world as a whole. Internet-enabled, they are connecting with the similarly concerned and disenfranchised and, though they have no vote, are demanding they stand up and be counted.

If this were just a concern for local police departments in host cities, it would be easy to dismiss. But the emergence of a global citizenry has more far-reaching ramifications. It is changing the political context in which trade negotiations occur,

ultimately making it harder for deals to get done. If there is a unifying theme to the protests, it is rebellion against unelected power, whether in the form of global institutions, corporations, or governments not your own. It comes from the democratic urge to have a say, even if you can't have a vote. Whether or not you agree with the war in Iraq, for example, people around the world who could not vote on it have certainly made their opinions known.

At a time when the developed world is in disarray, with the U.S. trying to control Iraq and the EU trying to quell dissension among its members, now is the moment for the disenfranchised - whether developing governments or a global citizenry - to have their day in the sun. It's happening all over, whether it's smaller EU states protesting the dominance of France and Germany, or the developing countries' revolt within the Anglican Communion. This environment does not create a hospitable setting for compromises in the name of the greater good - compromises that are a precondition for the completion of any landmark trade deal.

Peter Tirschwell is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell@joc.com.