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World: Analysis From Washington -- Circumscribing Sovereignty

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 1 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The debates this week both within the meeting of the World Trade Organization and in the streets of Seattle outside it reflect the ways in which increased trade among countries is effectively limiting the sovereignty of every one of the participating states.

Few of those taking part are prepared to dispute that freer international trade has brought many advantages to some individuals, groups and countries while imposing hardships -- some temporary, some perhaps not -- on others. The evidence for both is simply too powerful to ignore.

But underlying this contradictory impact of an economic development that some have argued will ultimately benefit everyone involved is the way in which international trade is circumscribing the powers of sovereign states from above and below, a process that may prove even more threatening to the current state system than national self-determination.

On the one hand, WTO rules require that member countries yield their traditional powers to regulate via tariffs and other means economic activities which cross their national borders. Thus, in order to enjoy the benefits of enhanced trade, these governments lose one of the features that has long defined the nature of statehood.

And on the other, precisely because expanded trade affects different groups within countries differently, the WTO has had the effect of creating new international alliances of groups -- be they farmers, environmentalists, or industrial workers -- which challenge not only the WTO system but also their own national governments.

Such challenges to state sovereignty are compounded by three other aspects of the discussions in Seattle which reflect variations in national development around the world and which at least some of the participants in the debate are loathe to acknowledge.

First, many of the countries which are now the most passionate advocates of free trade built their own economies behind high tariff walls. They reaped the benefits of being able to protect their domestic industries in the past, but they are now actively opposed to allowing other countries to use the same means they once did.

From the point of view of the advocates of free trade, their current position makes sense not only for themselves but for everyone. After all, economic theory suggests that trade will over time yield a better life for everyone, at least on average.

But from the point of view of countries with weaker economies, the advocates of free trade sometimes appear to be advancing their own rather than the interests of all states. After all, those countries which now have highly developed economies are often in a position to dictate conditions to countries which have not yet advanced to that level.

Second, many governments which now advocate sacrificing sovereignty to benefit from expanded trade are countries where national identification and the state are already well-developed. Many of those being told to yield sovereignty for that purpose are countries whose sovereignty has not yet been fully realized, such as the post-Soviet states.

Resistance by the latter to freer trade is no surprise, but even the leading advocates of reducing trade barriers are finding that the WTO process can call into question more of their sovereignty than they had intended -- particularly when it unites groups within their own countries to analogous groups in others.

Thus, American and French farmers form a kind of alliance even though each group casts its arguments in terms of defending national interests, a pattern that reduces the ability of their respective governments to act as they wish even in response to what these regimes often call outmoded economic nationalism.

And third, most of the advocates of expanded trade are in countries whose economies are growing rapidly, while most opponents come from states where economic conditions are less good or even in decline.

This pattern reflects the fact that responsible governments generally will try to take care of their own citizens first. In the past, all governments -- including the leading advocates of freer trade -- have placed restrictions on trade to do just that. Those suffering now seek no more than the same chance, even as they acknowledge that trade might ultimately serve their ends as well.

The Seattle meeting and the demonstrations swirling around it are not going to resolve these underlying contradictions, but together they may represent an important milestone along the road to a fundamental redefinition of sovereignty. To the extent that happens, the debates this week are likely to prove more significant than the participants may imagine.
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