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29.9.03

Two views of trade

Democrats Give Belligerence A Chance When It Comes To Trade

If there's one point of agreement among all of the Democratic presidential candidates, it's that President Bush has unnecessarily alienated the world with an approach to international security that is "arrogant," "bullying" and "belligerent."

... Now here's [Howard] Dean, back in Iowa in August, telling a union audience how he would convince America's trading partners to adopt labor and environmental laws as stringent as those in the United States: "How am I going to get this passed?" Dean asked. "We are the biggest economy in the world; we don't have to participate in [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and we don't have to participate in the [World Trade Organization]. If we don't, it falls apart."


In my more cynical moments, I have thought that Dean's shift to the left on trade (as Governor of Vermont, he was a steadfast proponent of NAFTA) was a move to appease some of his base -- the members of the "anti-globalization"/global justice movement, who joined up with him because of his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq but were unsettled by his economic centrism. But reading this article made me think that, if the shift is a form of appeasement, the group he's appeasing is the traditional Democratic constituency of labor (which he'll need if he hopes to win Iowa away from Dick Gephardt, and whose high turnout will be key for whatever Democrat gets the nod).

On the surface, labor and the global justice movement have similar views on trade -- both oppose "free" trade institutions like the WTO and NAFTA. And the global justice movement is often explicit in claiming solidarity with workers. However, the shift of the radical left from a focus on the proletariat in the advanced capitalist countries to a focus on the people of the third world has led to a divergence in the groups' analyses of what the problem with "free" trade is.

The distinction was clear when I read that Dean (and John Edwards, later in the article) plan to use global trade institutions as a stick to force other nations to improve their environmental and labor records. This is the inverse of the argument I'm used to hearing, from academics more aligned with the global justice movement -- that the WTO, NAFTA, and so on are used by the US to force other countries to lower their labor and environmental standards. From the persepective of American labor, free trade allows other countries to exploit the US, by luring away jobs with the promise of lower regulations. From the global justice standpoint, however, the key point is how free trade allows the US to exploit other countries, by barring their progressive ideas from becoming law.

The two views are not mutually exclusive, of course, when you look at the specifics of the trade policies concerned. But the emphasis is different, and it is clear that the Democratic candidates are playing to specifically American interests rather than the world and America's place in it.

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