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Waking Up the Global Elite

by William Greider Saturday, Sep. 16, 2000 at 6:32 PM

A hypocritical flood of elitist propaganda touting new initiatives and protections for human rights, the environment, even workers is good news, Grieder argues, since “even empty gestures can prove to be meaningful, sometimes far beyond what their authors had in mind. An enduring truth, a wise friend once explained to me, is that important social change nearly always begins in hypocrisy.”

The Nation

October 2, 2000


Waking Up the Global Elite


A tide of corporate high-mindedness seems to be sweeping the globe, inspired by last year's ruckus in Seattle and a continuing series of confrontations. One international organization after another has scurried to catch up with the popular rebellions against globalization by announcing "initiatives" to promote human rights, the environment and worker protections. Leading multinationals have been eager to sign up as co-sponsors, since the new codes or compacts are all voluntary and toothless. If corporate declarations of good intent were edible, the world's hungry would be fed.

The purpose obviously is public relations--improving the tarnished images of global corporations and portraying weak-willed international institutions as attentive and relevant to the turmoil of worldwide controversy. But even empty gestures can prove to be meaningful, sometimes far beyond what their authors had in mind. An enduring truth, a wise friend once explained to me, is that important social change nearly always begins in hypocrisy. First, the powerful are persuaded to say the appropriate words, that is, to sign a commitment to higher values and decent behavior. Then social activists must spend the next ten years pounding on them, trying to make them live up to their promises or persuading governments to enact laws that will compel them to do so. In the long struggle for global rules and accountability, this new phase may be understood as essential foreplay.

The United Nations has set up a pretty new website ( that Secretary General Kofi Annan describes as "making a bit of history" because it brings together forty-four multinational corporations and banks, a couple of labor federations and assorted civil-society groups "to launch a joint initiative in support of universal values." Companies that signed up for the UN's Global Compact include some familiar stalwarts from the globalization wars, like Nike and Royal Dutch Shell. All promise to do better by humanity in the future and to report their progress every year on the UN's web page.

In Paris, meanwhile, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has dusted off its long-neglected "Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises" from the seventies and intends to issue an updated version. Some US companies are already grumbling about proposed language suggesting that corporate management has an obligation to consult with labor. The "Sullivan Principles," first promoted by the Rev. Leon Sullivan of Philadelphia during the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, have also been born again. A new, globalized version asks multinationals to subscribe to eight broad principles (no children in factories, no bribery of governments, that sort of thing). The Washington International Business Report, a monthly newsletter that serves US multinationals, dubbed all this action "Return of the Codes." Demands from developing countries in the seventies for a "New International Economic Order," the WIBR suggested, have finally converged with "the new millennial proposals for regulation of rampant globalization by somebody." Only, of course, regulation is exactly what the companies hope to avoid.

Nike seems to be everywhere with its good deeds. In addition to collaborating with the UN, the company has also joined a new "Global Alliance for Workers and Communities" with the World Bank and the International Youth Foundation. Then there's the Fair Labor Association, launched by Bill Clinton to help US firms clean up their sweatshops; Nike is an active participant (when do they find the time to make shoes?). Nike CEO Phil Knight explained that the Global Alliance is surveying workers themselves to find out their needs. "We are finding some consistent themes," Knight reported. "Workers all want better healthcare and more education, as well as specific training on reproductive health and childrearing. They also want help for their families." Could they mean better pay? Knight never mentions wages, an omission consistent with the voluntary codes promoted by the multinationals.

The international flurry of high-level solicitude invites cynicism, since it's clearly intended to reassure the general public (never mind activists) that conscientious firms and institutions are on the case, diligently cleaning up the global system, so there's no need for any intrusive laws from governments. But each self-righteous claim offers a new target for agitation. Every "statement of principles" is a potential public relations disaster for the companies, because the contradictory realities of their global operations may sooner or later bite back.

The establishment, in any case, seems genuinely upset by the rude intrusion of turtles and Teamsters into their political stewardship of the globe. The Federal Reserve System holds a cozy campout for friendly media and economists every summer at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and this year's session was devoted to authoritative handwringing over the backlash. Himself Alan Greenspan acknowledged "a remarkable stall" in the progress of further trade agreements, and he urged fellow central bankers to lobby their governments. "We all need to press very hard on the political process," Greenspan said.

He and other speakers seemed to fear that elected political leaders are losing their stomach for the rigors of globalization, now that they are confronted with active popular opposition. Michael Moore, director-general of the WTO, complained that it will be "extremely difficult" to launch a new round of general trade negotiations (the objective stymied in Seattle). "It will only happen," Moore warned, "if sustained pressure on governments produces the political will needed to adopt flexible positions in sensitive areas." In trade talk, that's code language for brushing aside aroused citizens and doing deals.

From press accounts, the Jackson Hole conferees seemed divided themselves on how much respect they should pay to protesters. Moore himself acknowledged that "those who oppose us are not all fools and frauds." Former Fed vice chairwoman Alice Rivlin referred to the assembled policy thinkers as a "pro-globalization elite" and warned that the critics in the streets were raising many legitimate objections. "We need to have better answers to those questions, even for the kids gathered in the streets," Rivlin said. Others, however, dismissed the dissenters as "youthful and misinformed" and the Seattle movement as "an umbrella for everything that's wrong with the twenty-first century." If the elites are genuinely worried about the popular rebellion, maybe next year the Federal Reserve should invite some real-life turtles and Teamsters to the Jackson Hole campfire.

* * *

In the meantime, think of the UN as a promising new front. The Millennium Summit in New York in September illustrated the possibilities. Some leaders from poorer countries observed that modern globalization reminds them of the old colonialism; indeed, the same powerful countries are dominating the process.

In some ways, despite its many incapacities, the UN could be a better battleground for dissenters in the globalization debates than international agencies like the WTO or IMF, which dutifully adhere to business and financial interests. The UN has no power whatever, of course, but at least it provides an international forum for all voices, rich and poor. In any long-term vision for global reform, the UN will itself have to be rehabilitated and restructured and eventually empowered to challenge the corporate-led agencies on behalf of people and human values.

Indeed, a few weeks after Annan cozied up to the multinationals, a study team appointed by a UN human rights subcommission issued a withering report that describes the WTO as a "veritable nightmare" for developing countries. In particular, it was accused of imposing rigid intellectual-property rules on poor nations, farmers and indigenous people on behalf of the multinationals (the same complaint that US and foreign activists are making). "What is required," the study said, "is nothing less than a radical review of the whole system of trade liberalization and a critical consideration of the extent to which it is genuinely equitable and geared toward shared benefits for rich and poor countries alike."

Some activists already see the possibilities. Victor Menotti of the International Forum on Globalization described Annan's compact as "a feeble and cynical attempt" to help the multinationals defuse the backlash against them, but Menotti also envisions a revival of the UN's original role as representative and defender of human rights--economic as well as political. "The UN repositions us back on what's supposed to be our turf but which has been taken away from us by corporate institutions like the IMF," Menotti said. "We need to create some dogfights within the international system and make people ask, Who is subordinate to whom?"

* * *

Food First has proposed that the landmark covenants produced in the UN's early years be revived and restored to viability now that the cold war is over. One covenant, as co-director Anuradha Mittal explained, is devoted to "civil and political rights" and was promoted by the Western democracies, including the United States, while the other, on "economic, social and cultural rights," was advanced by the Communist sphere. The economic rights covenant--including the right to food, shelter and an adequate standard of living--has never been ratified by the United States, alone among the G-7 nations, though it was belatedly signed by President Carter two decades ago.

"What we are saying," Mittal said, "is that these covenants have to be the litmus test for globalization--any trade agreement must be able to meet those principles to be acceptable to us. Otherwise, it will simply make the rich richer and the poor poorer."

The UN, she suggested, might be rescued from its debilitated condition by this issue. "We are told to follow trade agreements so strictly and even have courts like the WTO to enforce them, but why can't we have good, effective courts where people can go with human rights complaints? The only hope that remains for the UN is for it to be given back its power to act as a watchdog to protect human rights for others. Otherwise, it's a fig leaf." The vision of a revived UN opens up another hard political struggle, but one not necessarily more difficult than reforming the WTO or the IMF.

One other new front for fruitful agitation was opened this summer. Two members of Congress, Representatives Cynthia McKinney and Bernie Sanders, introduced parallel measures to impose new standards on the global system and accountability on US multinationals in their behavior overseas. McKinney's HR 4596, with Sanders and a handful of others as co-sponsors, describes a "corporate code of conduct" that would be enforceable by US law and through civil-damage lawsuits in federal courts. Sanders's "Global Sustainable Development Resolution" (H.Res. 479) speaks more broadly to reforming the international institutions and trade agreements, as well as to corporate accountability.

Naturally, it's a long slog ahead for either proposal to be taken seriously in Washington, but both represent a promising starting point. The next time you hear a US Representative uttering the usual bromides about globalization, interrupt to ask where he or she stands on McKinney-Sanders.

William Greider is The Nation's national affairs correspondent.


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