The largest gathering of world leaders in history takes place at the United Nations this week at the Millennium Summit. Some 150 prime ministers, presidents, and potentates are slated to convene for a three-day meeting at the U.N. General Assembly, chiefly to discuss globalization and its discontents. The security preparations have made the tony East Side of Manhattan an obstacle course of concrete barriers and glowering men with guns. New York officials expect no less than 91 different protests during the summit. Tuesday afternoon featured spirited denunciations of Iranian ayatollahs and the Chinese government's continuing suppression of the Falun Gong religious movement.
Meanwhile Mikhail Gorbachev, former secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party, former president of the Soviet Union, and, more recently, former Pizza Hut pitchman, is convening a parallel session of private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and political leaders in a World Forum meeting under the rubric "Shaping Globalization: Convening the Community of Stakeholders."
"[Globalization] is the topic of discussion everywhere," declared Gorbachev in his opening remarks at the World Forum's first plenary session. Gorbachev told the audience of around 1,000 participants (tickets for the whole week went for up to $4,500 per person) that some worry globalization "is just Westernization; it is just Americanization." He warned that the gap between rich and poor countries was growing. He further noted that globalization has led to vast changes in "cultural flows" and he griped that 80 percent of the movies shown in Russia today are American. "Globalization is like a steamroller and will create a culture that is uniform around the world," said Gorbachev. "It is a threat to the cultural identity of nations."
Finally Gorbachev said, "We are not here to condemn globalization" though it sure sounded like it. Instead, he wants to tame globalization using some sort of People's Assembly as a kind of lower house for the United Nations General Assembly.
Next up was international financier and founder of the Open Society Fund George Soros. Soros excoriated "market fundamentalists" and warned that "Markets are good at taking care of private interests, but not good at protecting the common interest." Strangely for man who made hundreds of millions of dollars through currency speculation, Soros disapprovingly noted that "when capital is free to move around, it will avoid any state that seeks to impose taxes and regulations." Soros wants to strengthen international institutions and actually thinks that the World Trade Organization is a good model since it has the judicial power to enforce its rules. He would give similar powers to the International Labor Organization and international environmental organizations. Finally Soros condemned the Republicans in Congress for blocking developing nation debt relief funds for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). "It's not a very good example of compassionate conservatism," he smirked.
President of the AFL-CIO John Sweeney spoke next. "Globalization is the result of a conservative movement that swept the West 25 years ago bringing Thatcher, Reagan and Kohl to power," said Sweeney. Sweeney then offered a fascinating potted history in which he declared that world had been through all this before during the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. "That global era ended disastrously," he declared, because systems of limited government gave workers little say and allowed inequality to rise (he made no mention of across-the-board increases in standards of living in Europe and the U.S. during the period). This, said Sweeney, generated a backlash from the Left and the Right which spawned Communism and Fascism. "We've spent the last 25 years repeating the same mistakes," Sweeney said. The AFL-CIO is launching "a new campaign for global fairness" and is supporting "a tax on short term speculation that would create a pool of funding for basic needs."
The inimitable Vandana Shiva, Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resources, took the lectern next. "Globalization was shaped by corporations from the North with very, very masculine views and shaped by a particular race," said Shiva. "That means that the values of all species, all women, all children, and all labor were wiped out." She argued that liberalized trade means lower commodity prices which, in her view, harms developing country farmers and producers. For example, she declared that tea prices in India had dropped from 12 rupees to 4 rupees which hurt the tea growers. Somehow she ignored the benefits to the consumers of tea who can now buy it at only a third the price (the same holds for other staple commodities). Shiva was warmly received by the World Forum attendees, not because what she says is correct–in fact, most of her torrent of random facts and figures are demonstrably wrong or greatly exaggerated. No, Shiva got standing ovations because she reeks sincerity. It doesn't matter that she's wrong and that her proposals would cause enormous harm to the people she pretends to help. The important thing is that she is sincere.
Next, United Nations University Professor Gary Sampson calmly came to the defense of the much maligned WTO and trade liberalization. "The WTO has been remarkably successful in doing what it's supposed to do," said Sampson. "World trade now runs at about $1 billion dollars per hour." He pointed out that nearly all of the 138 member states of the WTO had democratically elected governments which prompted him to ask, "Why would democratically elected governments negotiate agreements that would destroy the environment, lower labor standards, and undermine their citizens' health? The answer is that none do." Any country can leave the WTO on six months notice and none ever has. He also argued that contrary to the claims of activists, "Trade doesn't destroy the environment. Trade means the more efficient use of natural resources which means using less natural resources." Sampson concluded by pleading with anti-WTO activists to stop "the propagation of false information, the use of rhetoric and the destruction of property."
A leading anti-WTO propagandist Lori Wallach was next. She is the director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. "Only one thing is certain about the current version of globalization and that is that it has a short future," declared Wallach. She expressed nostalgia for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which preceded the WTO, because it allegedly "focused on objective principles and the WTO, in contrast, sets policies in subjective areas." Her examples of subjectivity included European bans on biotech foods and beef treated with growth hormones, policies which she said were "nondiscriminatory." In other words, the ban applied to all such goods produced in Europe as well as those imported from abroad. Wallach overlooked the fact that the real reason Europe bans biotech crops and livestock is that it is drowning in subsidized agricultural products. European bureaucrats fear that European farmers would produce even more surplus agricultural goods if they adopted biotech crops and livestock enhancements. Thus the "nondiscriminatory" ban on biotech products (which are generally recognized as safe for consumers) keeps European farmers from using biotechnology. Such bans also function nicely as non-tariff trade barriers which governments are becoming increasingly clever at deploying. Wallach announced that a new activist campaign had been launched called "WTO-Shrink or Sink" and promised that protesters would be in the streets at the next World Bank meeting in Prague later this fall.
After the morning sessions, I stood on line for two hours to get my media accreditation for the U.N.'s Millennium Summit. That precious credential allowed me to sit in the balcony of the General Assembly to witness the historic moment when the small island nation of Tuvalu was formally admitted as the 189th member state of the United Nations. Tuvalu, encompassing four islands in the Pacific Ocean measuring 26 square kilometers with a population of 10,000, now has the same vote in the General Assembly as the United States. Aside from the sheer history of the moment, the representative from Barbados in welcoming Tuvalu to the family of nations, cleared up something that had been bothering me. The Barbadian representative noted that Tuvalu was confronted with many of the same problems as her country, especially "the protection of its sovereignty in the new globalized world." Now I get it–globalization threatens to undermine the power and authority of government. That's what all the fuss is about.
Wednesday, the World Forum holds a plenary session on the "Social Implications of Globalization" and additional dialogues on "Cosmology, Globalization and the Evolution of Human Consciousness," "Globalization and Global Governance," and the ever popular "Globalization and the Question of Equity." The U.N.'s Millennium Forum also officially opens tomorrow with speeches by 63 world leaders including Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, and Fidel Castro. With such a lineup on tap, the discourse promises to be bizarre and exaggerated. And well worth puzzling over.