Kamikaze Capitalism

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What do you call someone who believes so firmly in the promise ofsalvation through a set of rigid rules that they are willing to risktheir own life to spread those rules?

A religious fanatic? A holy warrior? How about a U.S. trade negotiator.

On Friday, the World Trade Organization (WTO) begins its meeting in Doha,Qatar. According to U.S. security briefings, there is reason to believethat al Qaeda, which has plenty of fans in the Gulf state, has managedto get some of its operatives into the country, including an explosivesspecialist. Some terrorists may even have managed to infiltrate theQatari military.

Given these threats, you might think that the U.S. and WTO would havecanceled their meeting. But not these true believers.

Instead, U.S. delegates have been be kitted out with gas masks, two-wayradios and drugs to combat bio-terrorism (Canadian delegates have beenissued the drugs as well).

As negotiators wrangle over agriculturalsubsidies, softwood lumber and pharmaceutical patents, helicopters willbe waiting to whisk U.S. delegates onto aircraft carriers parked in thePersian Gulf, ready for a Batman-style getaway.

It’s safe to say that Doha isn’t your average trade negotiation; it’ssomething new. Call it Kamikaze Capitalism.

Last week, U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick praised hisdelegation for being willing to “sacrifice” in the face of such“undoubted risks.” Why are they doing it? Probably for the same reasonpeople have always put their lives on the line for a cause: they believein a set of rules that promises transcendence.

In this case, the god is economic growth, and it promises to save usfrom global recession. New markets to access, new sectors to privatize,new regulations to slash — these will get those arrows in the corner ofour television screens pointing heavenwards once again.

Of course growth cannot be created at a meeting, but Doha can accomplishsomething else, something more religious than economic. It can send “asign” to the market, a sign that growth is on the way, that expansion isjust around the corner. And an ambitious new round of WTO negotiationsis the sign they are praying for.

For rich countries like ours, the desire for this sign is desperate. Itis more pressing than any possible problems with current WTO rules,problems mostly raised by poor countries, fed up with a system that haspushed them to drop their trade barriers while rich countries kepttheirs up.

So it’s no surprise that poor countries are this round’s strongestopponents. Before they agree to drastically expand the reach of the WTO,many are asking rich countries to make good on their promises from thelast round.

There are major disputes swirling around agricultural subsidies anddumping, about tariffs on garments, and the patenting of life forms. Themost contentious issue is drug patents. India, Brazil, Thailand and acoalition of African countries want clear language stating that patentscan be overridden to protect public health.

The U.S. and Canada are notjust resisting — they are resisting even as their own delegates head forQatar popping discount Cipros, muscled out of Bayer using exactly thekind of pressure tactics they are calling unfair trade practices.

These concerns are not reflected in the draft Ministerial Declaration.Which is why Nigeria just blasted the WTO for being “one-sided” and“disregarding the concerns of the developing and least developedcountries.” India’s WTO ambassador said last week that the draft “givesthe uncomfortable impression that there is no serious attempt to bringissues of importance to developing countries into the mainstream.”

These protests have made little impression in Geneva. Growth is the onlygod at these negotiations and any measures that could slows profits evenslightly — of drug companies, of water companies, of oil companies — arebeing treated by believers as if they are on the side of the infidelsand evil doers.

What we are witnessing is trade being “bundled” (Microsoft-style) insidethe with-us-or-against logic of the war on terrorism. Last week U.S.trade representative Robert Zoelick explained that “by promoting theWTO’s agenda, these 142 nations can counter the revulsive destructionismof terrorism.” Open markets, he said, are “an antidote” to theterrorists' “violent rejectionism.” (Fittingly, these are non-argumentsglued together with made-up words.)

Ms. Zoellick further called on WTO member states to set aside theirpetty concerns about mass poverty and AIDS and join the economic frontof America’s war. “We hope the representatives who meet in Doha willperceive the larger stakes,” he said.

Trade negotiations are all about power and opportunity and for theDoha’s Kamikaze Capitalists, terrorism is just another opportunity toleverage. Perhaps their motto can be: What doesn’t kill us will make usstronger. Much stronger.

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