How the WTO works

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Behind the Scenes at the WTO: the Real World of International Trade Negotiations
By Fatoumata Jawara and Aileen Kwa
Zed Books, 2003
329 pages, US$19.95 (pb)

REVIEW BY EVA CHENG

Few people expected the Third World countries to force a collapse of a World Trade Organisation biennial ministerial summit when it met in Cancun, Mexico, in September.

Two years earlier, Third World delegates had failed to stall the WTO talks in Doha, Qatar. They were unable to repeat their success in Seattle in 1999, where Third World delegates also thwarted the neo-colonial "free trade" agenda of the imperialist countries' rulers.

What exactly caused the Cancun collapse will become more evident as insiders' accounts surface. Did the collapse of the talks reflect a shift in the balance of forces in favour of the Third World camp or was it due to administrative lapses by imperialist-country bureaucrats?

Focusing on the negotiations and powerplays in the lead-up to the Doha ministerial meeting, and in the year or so that followed, Fatoumata Jawara and Aileen Kwa's Behind the Scenes at the WTO provides some hints as to why that WTO meeting was a "success" for the rich countries.

The imperialists prevented another collapse at Doha by resorting to dirty tricks and divide-and-rule tactics, as well as getting help from their Third World stooges ("friendlies" in WTO-speak) and the pseudo-neutral, but in fact pro-imperialist, WTO secretariat.

As the book covers developments until early 2003, and the key issues at Doha were no different at the Cancun meeting, Behind the scenes provides useful insights on the power dynamics in the lead-up to and at the Cancun gathering.

It provides evidence of how the WTO works to serve the imperialist countries, despite its official claim to treat its 140-plus member-countries equally.

The role of pro-imperialist "friendlies", such as the governments of Kenya, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Singapore, South Africa and Morocco, in carrying out their masters' agenda should dispel any illusion that underdeveloped countries are "automatically" united by a common experience of being subjugated by imperialism. Selective bribery works well in buying off some regimes in order to undermine any united Third World opposition.

Jawara and Kwa recount how, a few years ago, Third World WTO members fought for Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi, from Thailand, to become WTO director-general, rather than New Zealand's Mike Moore, the imperialist countries' pick. They won a partial victory, with the WTO director-general's usual four-year term being extended to six years. Moore held it for the first three years, followed by Panitchpakdi.

Panitchpakdi took over in September 2002, and there were high hopes that he would stand up for the Third World's interests. Jawara and Kwa describe how the romantic expectation that an individual from the Third World would "naturally" serve poor-country interests was dashed.

Jawara and Kwa also document an impressive series of initiatives, taken by a significant number of Third World countries, to counter the imperialists' push for WTO rules that favour the rich. The G77 (which in fact represents more than 130 countries), the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of countries and the 15-member Like-Minded Group are some examples. Similar alliances, with some new permutations depending on the issue, played a progressive role in the lead-up to and at the Cancun meeting.

Behind the Scenes documents how the marginalisation of the Third World takes place at WTO meetings, such as the increasing use of "mini-ministerial" meetings attended by imperialist-country government representatives and selected Third World governments. These make key decisions (often predetermined by the US and the European Union), which are passed to the WTO General Council to be rubber-stamped.

Behind the Scenes is a solid investigation by two pro-Third World journalists. It is also based on interviews (mostly off the record) with WTO negotiators from 33 countries.

However, a weakness is that Jawara and Kwa do not provide a critical analysis of the broader capitalist system from which imperialism arises and in whose interest the WTO serves.

In the wake of the Cancun debacle, Washington has begun to try to get its way with bilateral and regional deals that its "free trade" demands. Jawara and Kwa reveal that this is not a new tactic, but one that Washington aggressively flagged prior to and during the Doha meeting.

What came through Behind the scenes is that the Seattle and Cancun "victories" are fragile. It's good for the oppressed camp to taste success, however partial. But it is important for activists to gauge them in perspective, to be keenly aware of how they were won and understand what they represent in terms of the political balance of forces, in order to be prepared for the battles ahead.

From Green Left Weekly, November 26, 2003.
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