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Corporate Globalization Resistance

Imperialism, Human Rights, and Protectionism
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By Robin Hahnel

Recently I was asked to answer some questions about tactical choices facing the movement against corporate sponsored globalization. Unfortunately, people and groups inside the movement differ in their answers to these questions, and those differences threaten to divide us. I offer my answers and reasons in hopes of persuading those who, up to now, have come to different conclusions.

Should we support the U.S. government passing legislation that in various ways puts pressure on foreign abusers of human rights—for example, denying abusive regimes trade benefits, foreign loans, or U.S. support for international loans? Does it matter how abusive the regime is? Does it matter what form the pressure takes?

I think one has to decide what role the U.S. government plays in the world before answering this question. Unfortunately, the collapse of the weaker “Evil Empire” ten years ago was followed by increasing hegemony of the more powerful Evil Empire, to the point where U.S. global dominance is literally unprecedented in world history. What has the U.S. done in the last decade when communism no longer stood in its way? Has the U.S. government promoted global peace? Prevented gross violations of human rights? Spurred economic development in lesser developed economies? Encouraged changes to protect the environment? Sponsored policies to reduce global inequalities? Or has the U.S. government, for the most part, done just the opposite while seizing every opportunity to consolidate and expand U.S. military, economic, and political power? Was there any difference in deeds, rather than rhetoric, when Republicans or Democrats occupied the White House? I think anyone trying to decide if she/he favors U.S. economic sanctions against foreign governments that violate human or political rights or permit child or slave labor, needs to first decide if the evidence suggests that the United States uses its considerable global power in a benign or malevolent way.

Sadly, there is overwhelming evidence that the U.S. has used its unprecedented global powers since the end of the Cold War to serve the interests of a minority of its own citizens to the detriment of the interests of the majority of its own citizens and a majority of people in the rest of the world. Moreover, the “new Democrats” score no better than Republicans on this issue, their protestations notwithstanding. When the excuse of protecting ourselves and the rest of the world from the machinations of the “evil” Soviet Empire was removed, U.S. imperial behavior only worsened, just as critics feared and warned it would.

I am not going to review here the evidence from Indonesia and East Timor, the Persian Gulf and Iraq, Yugoslavia and the Balkans, Rwanda, and the Congo, and Nicaragua, Cuba, and Colombia. I am not going to review what has happened to the Pentagon budget after the disappearance of the only credible military threat to the United States, nor the U.S. role as arms merchant to the world. Nor am I going to evaluate the logic of neoliberal U.S. international economic policy and its effect on foreign and U.S. constituencies. For readers who do not agree with my point of departure, I recommend that they read Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman and Michael Klare on U.S. foreign and defense policy since the Cold War. But unless people agree that the U.S. behaves as a self-serving imperial power, I would not expect them to agree on whether progressives should support U.S. economic sanctions against foreign violators of human, political, or labor rights. I start from the conviction that at present U.S. government international policy will serve the interests of U.S. elites at the expense of foreigners and ordinary Americans if need be.

For that reason I think the answer to the above question is “no,” because it is predictable that more often than not the policy would be applied in an extremely hypocritical and counter productive way. The pressure would be applied to governments deemed hostile to U.S. investment and to governments that stood up to U.S. bullying. The pressure would not be applied to compliant regimes, no matter how abusive. The “policy” would be used against the Castro regime in Cuba and the Qadaffi regime in Libya, not against the Suharto regime in Indonesia or the Mobutu regime in Zaire. The “policy” would be used to weaken Kabila in the Congo not to prevent genocide in Rwanda. The policy would be used to extract greater concessions from the Chinese leadership for U.S. companies rather than to benefit a democratic opposition committed to social and economic justice in China.

But why shouldn’t U.S. progressives support U.S. government pressure on regimes that violate human, political, or labor rights—or regimes that discriminate against racial minorities, women, and/or gays, or regimes that harm the environment? Even if the pressure is selective, hypocritical, and self-serving, why refuse to support the U.S. government if it stops a “crime against humanity” anywhere?

I am not recommending defending any policies that subvert democracy or justice anywhere, at any time, no matter how staunch an opponent of U.S. imperialism or how “progressive” the government that carries them out. U.S. progressives have often made that mistake to our own detriment. It is not the case that all policies of governments who oppose U.S. imperialism are good policies, nor the case that all policies of generally good governments are good policies. Whether it be the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, or Iraq, undeserved apologetics is wrong and counter productive as well. For example, I can praise Cuban educational and health policies, I can admire the Cuba government commitment to economic equality and solidarity with other third world movements for national liberation, and I can acknowledge that Cuba has been an undeserving victim of punitive U.S. imperial measures on innumerable occasions, yet I can still criticize restrictions on political freedoms in Cuba, and Cuban failures to promote economic democracy. As long as I remember that I am not a Cuban, and therefore I have no “say” regarding Cuban policy, I do the Cuban revolution no harm by stating my views.

But there is a difference between progressives voicing honest disagreements with what we find to be Cuban government violations of political rights, and progressives supporting U.S. government sanctions against Cuba because of those alleged violations of political rights. The second is support for unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of another country, at minimum, and support for calculated imperial aggression, at maximum. Moreover, blinding ourselves to the fact that U.S. government support for human and political rights is hypocritical and that U.S. “humanitarian intervention” is humanitarian in name only is destructive of the cause of global human and political rights precisely because the U.S. is not a benign superpower. Instead, the U.S. government is the major obstacle to eliminating “crimes against humanity” because we routinely protect violators in exchange for their fealty, and systematically obstruct efforts to create an unbiased, democratic international body with effective means for intervention wherever necessary. Only when intervention against a regime enhances U.S. imperial power is it pursued. Those who would support the international defense of human and political rights have one major task: Replace the U.S. government as sole international judge, jury, and executioner with an empowered democratic United Nations.  

What if the legislation declaring U.S. loans will not go to any countries that engage in systematic human rights violations?

I don’t think that would make much difference. Look what happens now when a Democratic administration must certify that the record of the Colombian government is improving before U.S. military aid can be sent under the ruse of combating drug trafficking. The Administration lies and Congress plays dumb.

How long will it be before the Chavez government is declared a violator of human and political rights, not to speak of economic freedoms, if Venezuela persists in its intent to sell oil to Cuba on generous terms?

When the Ecuadorian economy became a victim of contagion in international financial markets, when economic conditions deteriorated to the point of desperation, when the U.S.-educated and supported-president responded by announcing he was going to proceed with dollarization leaving pensioners penniless, when a popular uprising led by indigenous peasant organizations, labor unions, and popular junior officers in the Ecuadorian military deposed the president and seized the legislature in a bloodless uprising. When senior military officers were on the brink of declaring loyalty to the new government, President Clinton’s National Security Advisor phoned the Ecuadorian chief of staff to tell him the U.S. would never recognize the new government, and their would be no peace in Ecuador unless the military backed the vice president who must continue to pursue neoliberal “reforms.” Within hours the heads of the Ecuadorian Army, Navy, and Air Force declared their support for the vice president who promised to pursue dollarization, and the leaders of the uprising fled underground. In the hands the U.S. government, sanctions become another tool for imperial oppression rather than an inducement for foreign regimes to respect their citizens’ human, political, and economic rights.

What about labor rights and support for U.S. laws banning imports of goods made by child labor or slave labor? Are such laws really protectionism in disguise?

Such laws, as well as provisions about labor and environmental standards in WTO treaties given how the WTO operates, can become new vehicles for protectionism and imperial manipulation. Suppose only violations of labor or environmental standards are recognized grounds for trade sanctions under new WTO rules. Effectively, only third world countries would be subject to complaints. Worse, third world countries would have waived their rights to retaliation when subjected to protectionist measures disguised as protections of labor or environmental standards. I

t is important that first world labor unions and environmental organizations recognize that our third world counterparts have good reason to worry that such provisions can easily become the new rationale for protectionism at their expense and for punishing regimes resistant to U.S. imperial policies. The AFL-CIO was oblivious to this legitimate concern going into Seattle and angered third world allies in the anti-globalization coalition as a result. While they did not abandon their call for labor standards in trade treaties, fortunately the AFL-CIO rethought the issue and passed some important resolutions reaching out to third world workers at its Executive Council Meeting February 16-17, 2000 in New Orleans.

Of course it would be a good thing if labor rights were made more secure and labor standards were improved anywhere in the world. The issue, however, is whether progressives in the U.S. should pressure the U.S. government to pass and enforce laws against imports from offending countries or to insist on such provisions in WTO treaties. I believe there are more effective and less dangerous ways to achieve this goal and to protect American workers from competition with third world workers who are even more exploited.

Many third world unions and grassroots organizations appreciate help from first world progressives in their campaigns for labor rights and standards. They would like us to help publicize abuses—particularly when our multinational corporations are the perpetrators. They like any financial or organizational aid we can provide —with no strings attached. Sometimes they like us to organize consumer boycotts—when they ask for them. Occasionally, when their struggle is at a crucial stage, third world movements for human, political, and labor rights ask us to pressure our governments and/or international organizations to take up economic sanctions, as was the case in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and is now the case in the struggle for democracy in Burma. But there is a difference between responding to requests for international solidarity and promoting measures many of our third world allies oppose.

Moreover, precisely because third world workers are terribly exploited, their employers will pass on much of the cost of improvements in labor standards achieved through international trade treaties to their employees in the form of lower wages. Since the primary concern of the AFL-CIO is to arrest the “race to the bottom” effect of trade liberalization, they can more effectively protect their interests by supporting programs that improve the bargaining power of third world workers more than international labor standards do. For example, campaigns supporting land reform and cessation of U.S. military aid to totalitarian regimes are far more likely to reduce the “race to the bottom” effect of international trade. The crucial question is not whether the initiative for standards or sanctions comes from capitalist politicians or from the U.S. human rights/labor/left communities. The crucial question is whether the initiative comes as a request from those we want to help in third world countries. If so, we should be as responsive as possible.

What about supporting international agreements banning child labor or torture?

Why ask only about child labor and torture? Why not support international agreements banning any violation of human, political, or economic rights—including the right to equitable compensation for self-managed labor for that matter. I think we should support any such international agreements—as long as there is good reason to believe the agreement would be fairly administered. But I believe the “fair administration caveat” rules out any international agreement policed by the WTO, the World Bank, or the IMF at this time. These institutions, like the U.S. government, cannot at present be trusted to administer treaties without severe bias. We should instead be trying to democratize and empower the United Nations, UNCTAD, the ILO, and the implementing bodies of multilateral environmental agreements that are far better candidates to negotiate and fairly administer agreements of this kind.

I do not believe this implies that U.S. workers do not have a right to protect their hard won gains in labor and living standards or that environmentalists in the U.S. do not have a right to protect the improvements in environmental quality won in the U.S. over the past 30 years. Quite the contrary, I agree with those such as Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith who call for “raising labor, environmental, social, and human rights conditions for those at the bottom,” as the first of seven planks in their draft program for globalization from below, and who argue that “ultimately, minimum environmental, labor, social, and human rights standards must be incorporated in national and international law.” (Brecher, Costello, and Smith, Globalization from Below: The Power of Solidarity, South End Press, 2000.)

I believe that trade liberalization, as well as capital liberalization, does threaten first world environmental and living standards by generating a “race to the bottom” effect as employers force employees and governments to either grant them concessions or risk loss of jobs and tax revenues. Which is why I think workers and environmentalists have chosen wisely to oppose trade and capital liberalization—a globalization from above that empowers corporations and the rich at the expense of workers, the poor, and the environment. But because I believe trade and capital liberalization will aggravate the race to the bottom effect, I think it unwise for first world workers and environmentalists to give our consent to further liberalization in exchange for commitments regarding labor and environmental standards that would also hasten the “race to the bottom” and would inevitably go unenforced except when it served U.S. imperial interests. That would be a “bad trade” on our part, one that sells our third world partners down the river and divides the coalition against globalization from above as well. Instead, our stand should be: “No further globalization until it is done democratically, enhances environmental preservation, distributes efficiency gains between nations so as to reduce global inequality, and distributes efficiency gains within nations to reduce internal inequality as well.”

Nothing the U.S. government, the IMF, the World Bank, or the WTO is currently doing comes close to meeting those requirements. Until globalization is organized to meet those requirements, that is, until there is an equitable, democratic process capable of putting those gains to good rather than bad use, the planet and a majority of its inhabitants are better off with less rather than more globalization. “No more globalization as long as it is globalization from above rather than from below.”