Beyond "Free Trade" toward Global Justice

Mark Engler, 11/19/2003

(Note: Excerpted from a new discussion paper on the challenges facing the global justice movement and available in full at .)

Good news has arrived for people concerned with workers' rights and

the state of the environment in the hemisphere: When trade minister

meet in Miami this month to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the

Americas (FTAA), their talks will probably fail. Most likely, their

conference will produce only a symbolic declaration of intent and will

make no real progress.

For those of us who will be protesting the

talks, this will be cause for celebration. However, it will also

present an important challenge for the global justice movement.

The type of resistance that has gained widespread public attention

since the 1999 Seattle, Wash., protests against the World Trade

Organization (WTO) has gone far in wresting legitimacy from the

neoliberal economic policies long imposed on the developing world and

in publicizing the harmful impacts of trade pacts, such as the North

American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But the FTAA will fail in Miami less because of such outside opposition than because of resistance from the White House. In the past two years, U.S. President George W. Bush and his administration have been inclined to abandon multilateral approaches to trade and development in favor of a newly unmasked

nationalist approach to exercising U.S. power abroad. This approach

demands a fresh response from social movements resisting imperialism

and corporate globalization.

The Bush administration's attitude toward

globalization differs substantially from former President Bill

Clinton's. In contrast to Clinton's support of multilateral

negotiations, Bush's stance is as a nationalist. In a marked shift

from the Clinton era, Bush's economic nationalism has put many of the

leading institutions of globalization at risk. The International

Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which served as dominant

mechanisms for exercising U.S. power through the 1990s, have been

sidelined in the new century.

As far back as the 2000 presidential

election, analyst Walden Bello, director of Bangkok's Focus on the

Global South, foresaw that these two leading promoters of the so-

called "Washington Consensus" would face an inhospitable four year

under Bush. "The Bretton Woods institutions," Bello wrote, "will lose

their liberal internationalist protectors like Treasury Secretary

Larry Summers who believe in using the Fund and Bank as central

instruments to achieve U.S. foreign economic policy objectives."

However, our global justice movement has not widely acknowledged that

the administration's fervent unilateral approach extends even into the

realm of economic relations.

As the global justice movement prepares for the Miami protests, an

appreciation of Washington's new approach to foreign policy need not

alter our attitude toward multilateral agreements like the FTAA so

much as our priorities and our strategies in challenging the global

race to the bottom. Since large-scale international treaties will

likely be stalled with or without increased activist pressure, we

should use our presence at international gatherings to promote a

broader set of goals.

Debt cancellation is one topic that could move to the fore of our

attention. Success in the past decade at highlighting the devastating

impact of developing countries' loan obligations has created a

promising climate for forcing real change. With the Bush

administration promoting debt forgiveness in Iraq, the United State

is poorly positioned to fight against such demands. Further analysi

of the developments in the global economy that have influenced Bush'

economic nationalism will allow us to put the international debt

crisis in a context of larger change and to identify other priority


Moving beyond Miami, we need to prevent the Bush administration from

framing its nationalist turn as a program to benefit U.S. workers.

Today, globalization is increasingly leading to the loss not only of

manufacturing work, but also of white-collar jobs in the United

States, in the process dubbed "off-shoring."

Bush may attempt to co-opt this issue in the upcoming election—to

convert anti-corporate resentment into the type of nationalism

witnessed in the era of former President Ronald Reagan, when protest

against U.S. factory downsizing were channeled into Japan-bashing.

Progressives must show that the neo-conservative empire-building

favored by the White House is as detrimental to labor rights and

living wages worldwide as the administration's domestic policy of

weakening unions and giving tax cuts to the rich is to the great

majority of U.S. citizens. Devoting energy to the issue of jobs will

be an important means for U.S. activists to ground our movement in the

economic realities faced by working people.

Part of our challenge in rejecting the pejorative label of "anti-

globalization" is to promote our own multilateral agenda—a brand of

globalization based on international solidarity and just exchange or

fair trade. This internationalism should affect not only the solution

we promote for job creation, but also our views of trade policy.

While opposing coercive arrangements that maximize wealthy countries'

ability to leverage concessions from the South, we should highlight

poorer countries' efforts to promote inter-regional commerce and to

cooperatively develop their internal markets.

An overemphasis on responding to large, multilateral agreements like

the WTO and the FTAA as the leading mechanisms of globalization limit

our flexibility in rising to the challenge of changing political and

economic conditions. With or without the FTAA, the United States will

attempt to expand its power abroad. With or without the FTAA, we need

to challenge arrangements that place the drive for corporate profit

ahead of local protections for workers and the environment.

We need to demand an end to forced privatization and to IMF-imposed cuts in

social services. And we need to connect the plight of working people

in wealthy countries to the struggles of the world's poor. If we

continue to be taken by surprise by the Bush administration's economic

nationalism, we will lose important opportunities to advance thi


Mark Engler, a writer and activist based in New York City, is a

commentator for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at He

can be reached via the web site

Research assistance for this paper was provided by Jason Rowe.)