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East/West: Free Trade Doesn't Guarantee Freedom

  • Jeremy Bransten

The democratic world's foreign policy leaders opened an unprecedented two-day conference today in the Polish capital Warsaw. The conference has two principal aims: to strengthen links among existing democracies and devise ways to encourage the further spread of democracy. Yesterday (Sunday), ahead of the official meeting, leading academics, political activists, and NGO representatives from around the world gathered to discuss how to make this lofty goal a reality. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports from Warsaw.

Warsaw, 26 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The past half-century has seen an explosion in the number of sovereign states, following de-colonization in the 1960s and '70s and the recent collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. From a total of 80 in 1950, the number of independent countries has now grown to over 190.

Paralleling this growth in sovereignty has been the increase in the number of democratic states, which today are home to more than half the world's population. And yet, how solid is democracy in many of these countries?

The U.S.-based Freedom House think-tank and George Soros's Stefan Batory Foundation has organized a series of seminars, called the World Forum on Democracy, ahead of the ministerial meeting to address that and other questions.

Financier and philanthropist George Soros spoke to the forum yesterday. He said economic globalization has made great inroads in the past decade and opened many previously closed societies to foreign capital. But, Soros said, capitalism doesn't necessarily bring democracy:

"We can speak about the triumph of capitalism in the world, but we cannot yet speak about the triumph of democracy. Capitalism and democracy do not necessarily go hand in hand. There is some correlation. Rising standards of living and the formation of a middle class tend to generate pressure for freedom and democracy; they also tend to support greater political stability. But the connection is far from automatic."

Soros noted that in some cases, especially where natural resources are at stake, global business interests can contribute to the strengthening of authoritarian regimes, in what he called an "unholy alliance" between Western companies and repressive governments around the globe. Soros said that some economists, whom he dubbed "market fundamentalists," would have us believe that free markets can resolve almost all social problems. But he called this a fallacy, noting that the primary goal of business is to make profits, not to safeguard freedom.

Democracy, forum participants agreed, must be underpinned by human rights. But whereas economic globalization is pushing countries around the world to follow the same set of business rules, when it comes to the observance of human rights, the principle of sovereignty remains paramount. Again, Soros encapsulated the paradox most succinctly:

"There is a serious mismatch between the political and economic conditions that prevail in the world today. We have a global economy, but the political arrangements are still firmly grounded in the sovereignty of the state. This wouldn't be a cause for concern if the market fundamentalists were right and free markets could be counted on to take care of all needs; but that is manifestly not the case. How can the needs of a global society be reconciled with the sovereignty of states? That is the crucial problem that confronts us today."

According to Soros, part of the solution lies in promoting the growth of civil society across the world, to force governments to be more responsive to the concerns of their citizens. He also called for the creation of an alliance of open societies -- that is, mature democracies with vibrant civil societies -- to tackle specific regional problems and the reform of international institutions.

Most speakers at the forum touched on the need to reform global institutions, which appear incapable of resolving modern conflicts or safeguarding human rights -- often because of concerns about state sovereignty.

The UN's impotence when faced with genocide in Bosnia and other countries led the NATO alliance to draft new rules of engagement to allow it to conduct a military campaign with humanitarian aims. But even here, the application was selective. Why did NATO attack Yugoslavia to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo but not do the same against Russia for its brutal war in Chechnya? Belgrade appealed to sovereignty but was ignored. But when Moscow does the same, the West listens -- opening it up to charges of using a double standard.

Ethnic Albanian publisher Veton Surroi told the forum that in his view, sovereignty must not be perceived as a state's inviolable right.

"I think what the Kosovar case, the East Timor case, and many other cases of serious human rights abuses have indicated is that sovereignty is not a given category. Sovereignty, as other things in a competitive world, must be earned. You are not given sovereignty in order to oppress the people. In that case, sovereignty does not exist or the oppression of people erases the boundaries of your sovereignty."

The question of how much weight to give sovereignty is sure to be taken up by foreign ministers at their meeting today. And it is a double-edged sword, as witnessed by the United States' reluctance to submit to multilateral agreements -- such as the International Criminal Court -- which it feels impinge on its own independence.

Meanwhile, the reform of other international institutions, especially financial bodies, also took up a significant portion of the discussion at the forum. The backlash against economic globalization, according to U.S. social scientist Francis Fukuyama, is fed by a perception that international financial bodies exist only to perpetuate their own bureaucracies, while providing few tangible benefits to those who need help most. Fukuyama said:

"We have a number of institutions that have grown up, largely driven by the bankers, to meet the needs of a global capitalist order: the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization. On a regional level, you have the European Union, NAFTA and the like. Most of those were created by technocrats to serve largely technocratic ends, and I think there is a real deficit of legitimacy in many of them."

Fukuyama said the IMF, World Bank, and WTO in particular will also have to shed some of their own sovereignty as part of the globalization wave sweeping the planet. These bodies, he said, will have to become more accountable to citizens, not just governments.

Economic globalization now recognizes few national boundaries, and the free traders appear to have carried the day. Bringing globalization to the field of human rights, state bureaucracy, and politics could be the next frontier.

It is a revolution in progress, and success is far from assured. But then again, seminar participants couldn't have chosen a more appropriate launching ground: the World Forum on Democracy continues for a second day tomorrow, in a brand-new skyscraper in downtown Warsaw called -- what else? -- Reform Plaza.