A Close-up Look at the Controversy in Cancun

A Close-up Look at the Controversy in Cancun

BC political scientist gets a behind-the-scenes view of WTO meeting

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

For Assoc. Prof. David Deese (Political Science), attending the recent World Trade Organization meeting as an accredited member of the press was like a music journalist getting a backstage pass to a rock festival.

David Deese
The WTO ministerial session, held Sept. 10-14 in Cancun, Mexico, ended in discord and with a number of critical global trade issues unresolved. Deese, armed with his press credentials, was able to gain an insight into WTO events and the mindsets of its participants - and even enjoyed an advantage over other members of the media.

"The reporters, for the most part, had a limited amount of time to talk to the delegates, non-government organization representatives and protesters, and of course, these interviews were on the record," said Deese, who has written a forthcoming book on the WTO's history and development.

"Whereas I could simply wait until the reporters were done, then go up to whoever it was they were interviewing and say, 'Hey, listen, can I talk to you for a little while, off-the-record?'"

While the WTO, and world trade itself, is a largely unfamiliar subject for much of the American public, says Deese, the Cancun controversy - most notably the criticism leveled by developing countries at the industrialized, more economically powerful nations - even caught the attention of those who only occasionally glance at the financial section.

"When I got back home, I had a number of people asking me, 'What went on there?'" said Deese.

The answer to that question could easily fill another book, Deese says, but the shorthand version is that politics drives world trade as never before, to a large extent because of the Bush Administration.

"The impression of so many people I spoke with at the WTO is that Bush is politicizing foreign policy in ways never seen before," he said. "To be sure, it's always been expected that, in the US and other major trade nations, the election cycle will have an impact on trade negotiations.

"But it seemed to many at Cancun that US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is not running the show, Bush and his top political advisors are, and so the US is not likely to make major trade compromises before the 2004 elections - which is just before the deadline for the conclusion of WTO negotiations. The US could have gained some points by helping ease the situation for African cotton producers, who are reeling from the collapse of cotton prices, but he wouldn't give them anything."

Another, perhaps even more important factor in the WTO dust-up, Deese adds, is that developing countries are making their presence felt in the WTO.

"Something fundamental has changed in the global trade arena," he explained. "The 'big guys,' like the United States, European Union or Japan, now understand that representatives of the larger developing, and even the least developed, countries have to be part of 'the club' in establishing the WTO agenda.

"In terms of smaller decision-making groups, now you have to push out a Norway or a Switzerland in favor of, perhaps, a Kenya, Nigeria, or another African nation. The circle has been broadened."

The most immediate concern for the WTO, Deese says, is how - or whether - it will resolve the primary source of the discord: a deep rift over how to reduce farm subsidies, border protection of agricultural products, and related export subsidies, and on proposals for the WTO to sponsor talks on so-called "new issues" such as cross-border private investment and competition policy which are forcefully advocated by the European Union.

"If you take the long view of the WTO over its 50 years of existence, you see that agreements often emerge in the aftermath of a collapse," he said. "Everyone goes home and says, 'Uh, oh, what happened?' and there will be as much onus on the minister from Ghana as on Zoellick to produce something that at least looks like progress.

"So it may be that it's the lower level officials who begin to work things out, by phone, or fax, or messenger, instead of at a high-profile forum like a WTO meeting in Cancun or Seattle.

"This is all very ironic, because in recent years external pressure has made the WTO more open, more accessible. Now, politics is affecting the process of forging trade agreements to the extent that you'll see protectionist barriers enacted to win votes at election time."


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