8 November 1999
SOPHISTICATED ASSAULT ON GLOBAL CAPITALISM
DANGER: Activists have given free trade a rotten rep--and if
governments and business don't get busy, it's going to get worse.
By Jeffrey E. Garten
Dean of the Yale School of Management,
Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade in the
first Clinton Administration
In late November, Seattle is likely to be the scene
of a big test for global capitalism. That's when more than 1,000
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are planning to
disrupt the kickoff of a new round of global trade negotiations.
The NGOs' collective claim is that unfettered commerce hurts
workers, consumers, and the environment, and that it is being
propelled by an arrogant World Trade Organization unaccountable
to ordinary citizens. With the very real possibility that the
trade talks will be derailed, the question is whether the strategy of
Washington and the business community is as lame as it looks.
Of course, not all NGOs have a political agenda and
many, such as the Red Cross or the International Rescue
Committee, provide unique critical services. But the gathering in
Seattle will be dominated by NGOs that take strong public-policy
stands, such as Human Rights Watch, United Students Against
Sweatshops, and the Sierra Club. While these organizations are
supporting important causes, their public-spirited missions shouldn't
obscure their intention to retard the momentum for a more open
world economy -- the best hope, even with its flaws, for a better
life for billions of people.
Today's NGOs are not the ragtag protesters of
the 1960s. They are well-organized and amply funded
and have become a powerful new force on the global scene.
They have skillfully exploited the void between shrinking
governments unable to cushion the impact of change on ordinary
citizens and multinational companies that are the agents of that
change. They have gained influence by joining forces across
borders, aggregating power under broad umbrella groups such as
Consumers International, and building alliances with unions
such as the AFL-CIO. They have harnessed the Internet to build huge
global coalitions and to coordinate lobbying in multiple
capitals. While governments and chief executives bore the public
and the media with sterile abstractions about free markets, NGOs
are sending more nuanced messages sensitive to the anxieties of
local communities around the world. At the same time, they
are preparing sophisticated strategies to influence
television networks, newspapers, and magazines.
There is plenty of evidence of NGOs' growing clout.
In recent years, they have changed the policies of global
corporations such as Nike (over treatment of workers abroad),
Monsanto (over genetically engineered products), and Royal Dutch
Shell (over environmental issues). In 1997 more than 600 NGOs,
representing 70 countries, caused the collapse of international
governmental negotiations to create global rules for foreign
If Washington and Corporate America don't move
decisively, NGOs could dominate public opinion on global trade
and finance. In the first instance, government officials and
business leaders should mount a much better campaign to explain
the benefits of globalization. They should also promote more
effective policies to help people adjust to changing trade patterns
-- such as education, professional training, and portable health and
pension benefits. Third, the Administration should also apply
intense pressure to the WTO to make its goals and its work
more visible and understandable to people around the world,
and to open up effective channels of communications to public
interest groups everywhere.
Beyond that, Washington and business should
challenge the NGO community to practice what they preach.
Every organization that calls itself an NGO shouldn't be
granted a free ride to influence. Governments and business
associations should demand that NGOs part the curtain on
their own activities--including disclosing exactly who their
members are and how they are financed. The media
should be continually prompted to scrutinize the
accuracy of the facts that underlie NGOs' arguments against
globalization. They should treat the situation as if it were a hotly
contested long-term political campaign for public opinion--
which it is.
NGOs can play an indispensable role in bridging the
responsibilities of the public and private sectors.
But if they are allowed to hijack the WTO talks, it will be a
dangerous precedent that every government and every global
company will regret long after the protests in Seattle. It's important
to broadcast the message that a global market economy can
promote not only growth but individual freedom as well a cleaner
environment. Warning for President Bill Clinton, the Business
Round Table, and their counterparts in Europe and Japan:
There is less than a month to get your act together.
You are already in deep trouble.