Lower the Limousine Windows
By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, August 23, 2001; Page A25
The threat of ugly street protests wherever they gather in mass is suddenly forcing the world's most powerful bankers, financiers and politicians to regroup and, it must be hoped, reassess some fundamental assumptions about wealth and power in the age of globalization.
The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have cut short their scheduled autumn meetings here from a week to two days in hopes of avoiding the kind of street violence that has repeatedly erupted over the past 20 months from Seattle to Genoa, Italy. That same concern will drive world trade officials to the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar in November and the Group of Seven political leaders to remote Canadian forests for their summit next year.
You do not have to sympathize with the anarchists, protectionists and publicity hounds among the demonstrators -- or even with the well-meaning environmental, civic and political organizations that also participate in these protests -- to recognize that they have forced a telling admission from their chosen adversaries, who can run but can't hide on the world stage.
A lot of the pomp and ceremony (and media coverage that the pomp and ceremony are designed to attract) turns out to be unnecessary if not self-defeating. The summits of the Group of Seven, World Trade Organization, the Asia Pacific Economic
Cooperation forum and other proliferating world leadership clubs increasingly find it difficult to justify the sweeping powers they have claimed or had imputed to them in times of perceived prosperity.
Like murder in the classics, bad ideas in politics will out over time. The threadbare state of several such ideas has particular bearing on the current success that the world's protesters are having in fastening blame and criticism on the international
Establishment for allegedly ignoring or exploiting the world's disadvantaged and poor.
Nearly two decades ago, the G-7 expanded beyond its original purpose, which was to have the leaders of the world's most affluent industrial democracies -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States -- consult informally with each other on economic problems, with a minimum of publicity. But in 1982 summit participants began to hold their own, often competing news conferences and the organization began to issue declarations on political questions as well.
The Reagan administration pushed for this change for a serious reason -- it wanted European and Japanese support for the deployment of U.S. missiles to counter Soviet SS-20s -- and for the less noble purpose of self-glorification. Background accounts extolling Reagan's wisdom and courage inside the closed meetings abounded at Versailles, Venice and other summit spots.
The end of the Cold War ended the SS-20 threat. But the propaganda shops survive and continue to fight their battles at the G-7 and other international summits. These meetings now serve as focal points for the disillusionment and bitterness that have been stirred in the Third World and elsewhere by the economic dislocations created by the market forces lumped together under the label of globalization.
Today it is possible to see how the G-7 members overreached in arrogating to themselves powers of a world political directorate based entirely on their wealth. They have given symbolic political membership to Russia in an expanded G-8, in the name of "integrating" that giant but poor nation into the world economy. This has made the political nature of the group only more apparent, and only more unwieldy.
The search for legitimacy -- a growing problem for the powerful nations of the world's Northern Hemisphere in a time of plague, devastation and deprivation throughout the global "South" -- has led the G-7 to inscribe debt relief, disease control and poverty on its annual agenda, and to do some good things.
But the doubts that the rich will voluntarily donate the resources needed to resolve the problems of the world's poor is expressed in the street demonstrations that now disrupt the G-7, WTO, IMF and World Bank clambakes. In this light, these institutions need to reassess the roles they have come to play in world politics.
The authentic backlash they have helped spark is a reaction against the complacent and greedy version of globalization that has been widely hyped and sold in the marketplace of ideas and goods. Criminals and charlatans have joined capitalists in taking advantage of this era's greater flows of trade, capital and technology across national borders.
Internet services turn out to be handy tools, not value-changing spreaders of prosperity and peace. Foreign investment can still be productive or exploitative, depending on circumstances. For better and for worse, destiny is not an inevitable product of market forces alone but also of human intent and will.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company