Published on
the Bangor Daily News (Maine)

Weighing World Trade, Terrorism and Democracy

Any progressive who suggested that international economic development was crucial in eroding support for terrorism would be accused of rationalizing terror. Yet this is exactly the posture the administration now adopts in its quest for carte blanche authority to negotiate new trade agreements.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has argued that trade is essential to the fight against terrorism. Trade "promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle." Zoellick is right. Trade can help foster individual freedom and respect for political and cultural difference. Unfortunately, the administration's trade policy is likely to have an opposite effect. Trade promotion schemes that leave corporations unaccountable to national or transnational democratic forces will encourage the always-extant xenophobia and fundamentalism both here and abroad.

Trade promotion authority is the new euphemism for fast track. Under such authority, President Clinton negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement. Fast-track rules, which give Congress the right only to vote entire treaties up or down, allowed Clinton to cajole and manipulate a reluctant Congress to accept the controversial agreement. NAFTA has proved so unpopular that Congress rejected two subsequent requests to extend fast-track authority.

Trade promotion authority represents a major abrogation of congressional prerogatives. Trade agreements today involve more than tariffs. New agreements require in various degrees harmonization of environmental, copyright, patent, and even tax law. These treaties place a nation's fundamental regulatory structure up for review by unaccountable elites.

When individual multinational corporations deem national environmental laws as "non-tariff barriers to trade," they are empowered to bring suit against these laws before trade tribunals. Such tribunals operate behind closed doors and can issue sanctions that make regulations they deem unacceptable prohibitively costly to national governments.

In the last decade, agreements negotiated under fast track have not only undermined important environmental regulations but have also left American labor vulnerable. These agreements protect the right of corporations to relocate abroad but do virtually nothing to ensure even minimal labor standards. U.S. labor has seen downward pressure on its wages, but even foreign workers have reaped little or no advantage from the influx of new jobs. Those developing states that do seek to mitigate any of the trends through welfare or tax policies often face business flight and pressures from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to slash benefits and balance their budgets.


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Governments of such Muslim societies as Indonesia and Pakistan, already short on democracy, have become economic colonies of international financial institutions. In an era when communism is dead and where "secularism" is associated with Western dictatorial oversight, political protest has fashioned new blends of some old standards, political and religious fundamentalism. Salim Muwakkil has commented in a recent Chicago Tribune op-ed that: "Just as previous generations of activists and intellectuals embraced ideologies that challenged what they viewed as the dog-eat-dog ethic of capitalism, young Muslims in their resource-starved nations have turned to "pure" forms of Islam to serve the same need.

The Arab nationalism that once fueled the popularity of late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser has been eclipsed by the pan-Islamic radicalism of groups like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hamas or Hezbollah... The Islamic leadership of these societies provides no alternative answers for the enduring disadvantages of their Muslim constituents."

Muwakkil also reminds us that our own history offers comparable lessons regarding the ugly fruits of political exclusion. The Nation of Islam, established by Elijah Muhammad in Detroit during the Depression, preached national separatism and hostility to U.S. institutions and culture as evil. Yet after Muhammad's death in 1975, his son, W. Deen Mohammed, urged his followers to reject black nationalism and embrace American citizenship. The civil rights movement, providing both political and economic opportunities for blacks, offered space for a new politics, one that would give voice to the dispossessed and make plausible alternatives to dualistic and millennialist politics.

It is exactly these opportunities that trade treaties imposed by elites foreclose both here and abroad. These agreements offer no scope for any other interests or concerns beyond those of transnational corporations. Displaced populations, cultural minorities and laid-off and insecure workers need space for vigorous domestic and international politics. A more open framework would facilitate and require ongoing compromises among business and labor groups across borders. U.S. workers would doubtless need to make accommodations with their counterparts in the developing nations, but they would also gain more security in dealings with their corporate employers.

The United States might be called to account for its role in the poverty and insecurity of the Middle East, but an open political dialogue would also encourage queries of leaders of the repressive Arab monarchies and even bin Laden as to what beyond rhetorical support they have ever given to the Palestinians. Rejecting Bush's new version of fast track is an important step in advancing both economic justice and political alternatives to terrorism and war.

John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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