What's so evil about the WTO?

The Hong Kong meeting of the World Trade Organization will likely fail. Whose fault is that?

By Andrew Leonard

Published December 12, 2005 7:53PM (EST)

The first casualty of protests at the World Trade Organization's talks in Hong Kong has been reported: the Coke machines at the offices of Simon Masnick, a prolific blogger on China-related topics, will not be refilled this week due to the "disruption."

Masnick is a conservative free market fan for whom anti-globalization activists appear to be a lower form of being than marauding cockroaches. Coke deprival is just one more reason for him to get riled up, and his blog is not necessarily the best place to look for nuance in discussions of globalization. But he does make one observation that is worth repeating to everyone who decries the WTO as nothing more than a tool for Western corporate interests.

"World trade is unfair as it stands, with massive subsidies and market distortions making the world's poor poorer for the sake of rich French farmers' vanity. Labour does get exploited. But the answer isn't to destroy the one multilateral avenue for negotiating improvements in world trade."

The Hong Kong talks are the culmination of a multi-year WTO negotiation process referred to as "the Doha round" -- (Doha is the city in Qatar where this round started in 2001.) The primary item on the negotiating table is the removal of agricultural subsidies. To simplify vastly, this is a poor country vs. rich country showdown. Developing nations with lots of poor farmers want rich nations to stop protecting their own relatively well-off farmers with subsidies and tarriffs. Representatives of the West, led by the European Union, claim in response that the developing nations aren't offering enough in return, in the form of lower tarriffs on manufactured goods and services.

The consensus among WTO watchers appears to be that the talks will fail: that they will conclude without a substantive agreement on reducing agricultural subsidies. But this is not because the WTO is a tool of the West -- in fact, it's precisely the opposite. Progress is being stymied because the poorer nations are refusing to sign onto agreements that don't benefit them. As reported in the Wall Street Journal today, Brazil's foreign minister Celso Amorim "accused the wealthy industrialized nations of sacrificing the interests of 70 percent of the developing world -- farmers barely getting by -- for the sake of a tiny segment of their own populations."

So who's the guilty party -- the WTO, where representatives of 149 countries actually get together to try to hammer out agreements -- or the rich countries, whose hypocrisy on the issue of free trade is gross and obscene? While the West whines endlessly about pirated movies and copycat Prada purses, and demands that foreign markets be open to every gewgaw that the industrialized nations produce, those same nations are at the same coddling and protecting their own farmers at the expense of the world's most disadvantaged populations.

That is not the WTO's fault. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, there is a still a lot of "horse-trading" going on -- which means that the poor countries have bargaining chips with which to deal. Seems to me that that should be a hopeful sign. A little over a hundred years ago, Western nations confronted by poor-nation intransigence would have just sailed their gunboats out of Hong Kong harbor, and forced the powerless to agree with whatever the imperialists wanted, whether that be sales of opium or extraterritorial concessions or some other atrocity. Today, China and Brazil and 147 other countries have seats at the table. That table is the WTO. The challenge is to make it work.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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