Doha's Kamikaze Capitalists
What do you call someone who believes so firmly in the promise of salvation through a set of rigid rules that they are willing to risk their own life to spread those rules?
A religious fanatic? A holy warrior? How about a U.S. trade negotiator.
On Friday, the World Trade Organization begins its meeting in Doha, Qatar. According to U.S. security briefings, there is reason to believe that al Qaeda, which has plenty of fans in the Gulf state, has managed to get some of its operatives into the country, including an explosives specialist. Some terrorists may even have managed to infiltrate the Qatari military.
Given these threats, you might think that the U.S. and WTO would have canceled their meeting. But not these true believers.
Instead, U.S. delegates have been be kitted out with gas masks, two-way radios and drugs to combat bio-terrorism (Canadian delegates have been issued the drugs as well). As negotiators wrangle over agricultural subsidies, softwood lumber and pharmaceutical patents, helicopters will be waiting to whisk U.S. delegates onto aircraft carriers parked in the Persian Gulf, ready for a Batman style getaway.
It's safe to say that Doha isn't your average trade negotiation; it's something new. Call it Kamikaze Capitalism.
Last week, U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick praised his delegation for being willing to "sacrifice" in the face of such "undoubted risks." Why are they doing it? Probably for the same reason people have always put their lives on the line for a cause: they believe in a set of rules that promises transcendence.
In this case, the god is economic growth, and it promises to save us from global recession. New markets to access, new sectors to privatize, new regulations to slash—these will get those arrows in the corner of our television screens pointing heavenwards once again.
Of course growth cannot be created at a meeting, but Doha can accomplish something else, something more religious than economic. It can send "a sign" to the market, a sign that growth is on the way, that expansion is just around the corner. And an ambitious new round of WTO negotiations is the sign they are praying for.
For rich countries like ours, the desire for this sign is desperate. It is more pressing than any possible problems with current WTO rules, problems mostly raised by poor countries, fed up with a system that has pushed them to drop their trade barriers while rich countries kept theirs up.
So it's no surprise that poor countries are this round's strongest opponents. Before they agree to drastically expand the reach of the WTO, many are asking rich countries to make good on their promises from the last round.
There are major disputes swirling around agricultural subsidies and dumping, about tariffs on garments, and the patenting of life forms. The most contentious issue is drug patents. India, Brazil, Thailand and a coalition of African countries want clear language stating that patents can be overridden to protect public health. The U.S. and Canada are not just resisting—they are resisting even as their own delegates head for Qatar popping discount Cipros, muscled out of Bayer using exactly the kind of pressure tactics they are calling unfair trade practices.
These concerns are not reflected in the draft Ministerial Declaration. Which is why Nigeria just blasted the WTO for being "one-sided" and "disregarding the concerns of the developing and least developed countries." India's WTO ambassador said last week that the draft "gives the uncomfortable impression that there is no serious attempt to bring issues of importance to developing countries into the mainstream."
These protests have made little impression in Geneva. Growth is the only god at these negotiations and any measures that could slows profits even slightly—of drug companies, of water companies, of oil companies—are being treated by believers as if they are on the side of the infidels and evil doers.
What we are witnessing is trade being "bundled" (Microsoft-style) inside the with-us-or-against logic of the war on terrorism. Last week U.S. trade representative Robert Zoelick explained that "By promoting the WTO's agenda. these 142 nations can counter the revulsive destructionism of terrorism." Open markets, he said, are "an antidote" to the terrorists' "violent rejectionism." (Fittingly, these are non-arguments glued together with made-up words.)
Mr. Zoellick further called on WTO member states to set aside their petty concerns about mass poverty and AIDS and join the economic front of America's war. "We hope the representatives who meet in Doha will perceive the larger stakes," he said.
Trade negotiations are all about power and opportunity and for the Doha's Kamikaze Capitalists, terrorism is just another opportunity to leverage. Perhaps their motto can be: What doesn't kill us will make us stronger. Much stronger.