Waking Up the Global Elite
by William Greider
The Nation magazine, October 2, 2000
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. I£
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 (unglobalcompact.org)
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 child-rearing. 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
hand-wringing 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
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
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
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 loaf."
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 glow 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 corespondent.