TCS Daily

Groucho's Maxim

By Alan Oxley - September 15, 2003 12:00 AM

CANCUN, Mexico -- Groucho Marx's quip "Any club that would accept me as a member is not worth joining" showed he also understood the psychology of exclusion and the power of not craving it. These principles governed the behavior of the thousands of officials, reporters, NGOs, politicians and Mexicans that crowded into a beach resort in Cancun for the WTO Conference last week.


Take the government officials. There were about 2000 of them from 140 odd countries. They were the performers in this three-ring circus and definitely "in" the club. Frankly they didn't have that much to do in Cancun. Their job was to ensure the negotiations continue. "Just that?" you might ask. What about agreeing to reduce trade barriers and farm subsidies that cost hundreds of billions of dollars?


Despite all the rhetoric, no one was willing to be serious about this. Not Washington, not Brussels, not the developing countries. Not yet, anyway. The dirty secret in this negotiation is that you won't find one experienced trade negotiator who believes these negotiations can deliver a decent result 15 months from now when these negotiations are due to wrap up. French farmers and Florida sugar growers don't believe this either. If they did they would have been at Cancun in greater numbers than the protestors trying to stop it.


Clawing back the subsidies lavished on farmers and allowing imports of cheaper food will take more than a few words laid down in an agreement negotiated at a Mexican beach resort. Legislators and farm groups have to be softened up and readied for the change.


This has not even started. And with a Presidential election year looming in 2004, no Bush Administration official was going to recommend this vote-losing strategy as a national priority. The Eurocrats face their own obstacle. Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder have blackballed major farm reform in the EU for a decade.


The anti-globalization NGOs want to be in this club. There were about 3000 of them at Cancun (not counting the 10,000 Mexican protesters around to serve as media magnets). They pilloried the WTO because they have no seat at the negotiating table. The WTO is an exclusivist, untransparent club for the rich, they complain.


There is a very good reason they shouldn't be there. It is laws made by governments that obstruct trade. The aim of the WTO is to get government to commit to change those laws. NGOs don't make laws. So they have none to change. Governments should consult NGOs and every one else affected by those laws, as they negotiate changes, but there is no sense in the idea that NGOs should be treated as lawmakers.


Groucho's maxim applies with full force here. If the WTO made NGOs members of the club it would definitely not be worth joining. It could no longer work. Of course this just what most NGOs want. Their goal is to stop the WTO from doing what it should.


Oxfam says the WTO should not make developing countries cut their own trade barriers. But this is a free trade organization. It succeeds only if every country cuts its own trade barriers. WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth want WTO changed so big countries (i.e. the EU and the US) can use trade sanctions to force countries to change environment policies. But the point of the WTO is to stop big countries playing politics with trade.


The anti-globlization NGOs want that constraint removed because they know how to lobby Washington and Brussels. They have found it impossible to lobby 140 governments. And to their dismay they have found that developing countries do not regard them as representatives of their point of view. That doesn't stop them telling anyone who will listen -- or, more particularly, contribute funds to them -- that they are.


The psychology of exclusion generates outrage and shrill criticism. The NGOs will lambaste the governments for failing to cut farm subsidies at Cancun. The cannier of the NGOs will better understand that they are better off not being in the club. For if they were, they would have to recognize -- as the government officials do privately -- that trade liberalization is a difficult and lengthy process. There is simply not enough time in the in current timescale to negotiate an effective result. The Doha Round will need another 2 or 3 years after 2005 to do this.


Furthermore, if you were in the club, how could your protest against yourself? Groucho's maxim at work again.


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