Terrorism and Free Trade

On Eve of First WTO Meeting Since Seattle, Bush Pushes for 'Fast Track' While Activists Prepare to Agitate

"Sucker-punched" was how more than one activist in the antiglobalization movement described the feeling.

Barely a week after terrorists reduced the World Trade Center to rubble, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick launched a full-dress rescue mission on behalf of one of the Bush Administration's pet projects: the expansion of the president's powers to negotiate trade agreements. In a September 20 op-ed in The Washington Post, Zoellick insisted that "fast track" powers, as they are called, are a vital component of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Fast track would give the president authority to negotiate trade agreements without revision by Congress—which could only vote for or against a proposed bill, without amendments.

A new round of World Trade Organization talks slated to take place November 9-13 in the tiny Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar puts globalization—the opening up of developing-country economies to trade and investment by big companies—back at the political center of attention. This is a watershed weekend in the globalization fight. Bush wants Congress to give him fast track so he can assure other countries that they can cut deals without worrying about the democratic process intruding. His Democratic opponents are just as eager to deny him the added authority. If they succeed, they could effectively kill his chances of getting it back on the legislative agenda for the rest of his term in office—and put a major dent in the armor supplied by his position as wartime leader. The gathering in Qatar of delegates from 142 countries is the WTO's first since the Seattle debacle two years ago.

In pushing hard for fast track, Zoellick was going to war with the loose coalition of trade unions, activists, environmental groups, and radical and revolutionary activists who dragged corporate globalization out of the shadows at the WTO's Seattle meeting. In a speech to the Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., he suggested that there are "intellectual connections" between the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and "others who have turned to violence to attack international finance, globalization, and the United States." An attack on "world trade and U.S. militarism," he implied, is "an attack on freedom." And he suggested what many activists have feared ever since September 11: that with America in a war against terrorism, any opposition to the Bush administration's corporate-friendly proposals will appear not only unpatriotic, but dangerously subversive.

After September 11, many Democrats had assumed the administration would not disrupt the bipartisan spirit to flog its highly controversial fast-track proposal. "It was even more opportunistic and evil than I thought possible," Thea Lee, the labor federation's chief international economist, comments bitterly about Zoellick's effort to wrap fast track in the flag. "It was so soon after the attacks, when our members were still reeling from the tragedy, and we couldn't believe we would have to stop our relief efforts to turn our attention to something like this."

Now, after being smeared as quasi-terrorists by Zoellick, the "Seattle coalition" is going back on the offensive. They'll make their first major post-September 11 statement in protests around the country this weekend against the meeting of the WTO, at which Bush, Zoellick, and a large U.S. delegation will try to launch a new round of talks on lowering trade barriers. U.S. and WTO officials are so eager to show that their global trade agenda is still moving ahead, despite growing public opposition and a war in nearby Afghanistan, that they rejected calls to cancel the meeting or move it to another region.

On Capitol Hill, Republican missteps appear to be giving antiglobalization forces the advantage. House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas of California pushed a fast-track bill through his powerful committee, virtually ignoring objections from ranking Democratic member Charles Rangel of New York, and outright opposition from minority leader Richard Gephardt. Thomas's snubbing of Rangel and other key Democrats who typically support free-trade measures pushed them to join the opposition.

Fast track needs a majority of the House's 435 members to pass. As of last week, only seven Democrats publicly supported Thomas's bill, and lobbyists at the AFL-CIO were not expecting the total to rise above 20. Meanwhile, as many as 35 to 45 Republicans were threatening to oppose fast track. But if the Republicans can't muster more votes, fast track may not hit the floor at all before Qatar.

More than just a setback for Bush, says Lee, that would be a strong indication that after years of being torn on the issue, the Democratic Party is finally uniting behind an antiglobalization position. And even if they win, she says of fast track's champions, "they'll win by a very ugly, partisan vote. They may be paying for it several years from now if they can't get the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement or the next WTO agreement passed."

In Washington on November 9, activists will be converging on Zoellick's headquarters, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The AFL-CIO, the Mobilization for Global Justice, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, and other activist coalitions are planning demonstrations. No More Walls (www.nowto.org), a New York activist coalition, is planning two events in New York City: a summit meeting of activists and nongovernmental organizations on November 8 through 10, and a Day of Action on November 9 against corporations that profit from war and exploitation of cheap labor.

The Republicans' stumbling efforts to pass fast track, and the grab bag of corporate handouts they're fashioning as an economic stimulus package, may help activists get their message out about the WTO's bias in favor of trade conditions that help multinational companies exploit cheap labor and natural resources in developing countries. The new round of WTO talks would include proposals to open developing countries more widely to corporate America's products, including pharmaceuticals—but prevent them from manufacturing cheap generic versions of vital AIDS drugs.

But some organizers suggest that the antiglobalization movement here may get its biggest push from outside the U.S., where activists didn't see 5000 of their fellow citizens murdered—but have watched local control of their economies slip away. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has declared November 9, the first day of WTO meetings, a Day of Action against global trade deals that destroy workers' rights. Events are scheduled in Japan, India, Russia, and Denmark, among other countries. The success of these protests in the U.S. that day will depend on the connections they can draw between the fight over corporate vs. local control of the economy and Americans' feelings of insecurity since the World Trade Center went down. "Real security is having food grown locally," says Starhawk, a California writer and activist, "not halfway around the world."


Related links:
Mobilization for Global Justice
Anti Capitalist Convergence

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