The people who protested in Seattle against the World Trade Organization summit may have used a range of different tactics, including some that were violent and destructive. But still, the concerns signaled by the 30,000 "mainstream" protesters are real enough: They were worried about the effects of economic globalization on labor protections, the environment, and human rights.
Beneath unease on specific issues, however, lies a much deeper question of governance. The WTO is an intergovernmental organization that seeks a "technocratic" form of insulation from politics. Its Web site advertises proudly that "The [WTO] system shields governments from narrow interests."
From the perspective of economists who designed the organization, that might look like an advantage. For anyone concerned with accountability of governments to citizens, it looks alarmingly antidemocratic.
As President Clinton finally realized in Seattle, it's unrealistic for a democratic leader to hope to be "shielded" forever from the concerns of his or her electorate. Seeing the involvement of labor unions in the protests there, Mr. Clinton suddenly called on the WTO to consider sanctions against violators of labor standards. That abrupt aboutface dismayed many other delegations, and the summit ended in disarray.
What was happening? Clearly, Clinton felt torn between the desire for insulation from politics that dominate WTO circles, and the expectations of strong political groups that remain important to his vision at home. Is there a way for a US president, or any other leader of a democratic country, to square this circle over the long run?
There is - but it involves taking a deep, hard look at the following three aspects of the governance of the present world economy:
*Trade policy, like any other activity involving human interactions in the public sphere, cannot be kept separate from politics. Nor, in the case of democratic countries, should such insulation even be sought.
*Present-day technology and the activities of corporations now easily straddle national boundaries. Regulatory institutions, like the WTO, must have a global purview, but finding more democratic ways to govern them is a priority. The WTO's decisionmaking is monopolized by national governments, many of which are themselves undemocratic.
*The expansion of global markets since 1945 has been very good for America and other rich nations. Now, much more must be done to start closing the huge gaps that remain with the global have-nots.
The answer to this is only "yes" if we think we're talking about an economic "pie" of fixed size, and that a bigger slice for one side inevitably means smaller slices for everyone else. But a wise leader looking at the global economy will see that - as in trade issues, generally - these aren't zero-sum relationships. The size of the pie can be increased. Specifically, the US should contribute much larger sums of overseas aid to help reduce poverty and improve labor and environmental standards in the poorest nations.
You think the US gives high amounts of aid already? Think again. In 1996-97, overseas development aid from the US came to just $30 per citizen - down from $52 a decade earlier. In 1996-97, by comparison, Denmark gave $342 per citizen, and Norway $308.
A wise leader could surely persuade Americans that increasing overseas aid by a factor of two or three isn't just easily affordable - it would also have multiple benefits for recipients, and for the broader vitality of the world economy. But we shouldn't simply wait for "wise leaders" to do the smart thing. We also need to reassert the inevitable link between economic governance and politics, and make governing of the world economy more democratic.
The people who designed the institutions that have governed the world economy since 1945 originally designed them to be linked much more closely to the overtly political United Nations than is the case today. That link between economics and politics needs to be revived, and made explicit. And as we work to make the UN itself more democratic, we should do the same with the WTO and other global-economy bodies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
It looks as if economic globalization is here to stay. The challenge now is to bring the global economy under a control system that is answerable to the global public.
*Helena Cobban, who writes from Charlottesville, Va., is author of the forthcoming 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace' (University Press of Virginia).
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society