War and the World Trade Organization

Published: 31/10/2001

Written by: Liz Walsh
Originally listed under: Edition 62 - November 2002


The WTO is dedicated to removing all "obstacles" to corporate power and wealth. The "obstacles" to be eliminated include labour standards, health and environmental regulations and government-funded services.

However, socialists do not argue that the WTO spells the end of the nation state and the ascendancy of stateless transnational corporations. Rather, we say that corporations cannot dispense with the role of the state - they need it to maintain the rule of the rich at home through anti-worker legislation and a police force and to protect their interests abroad through trade agreements and military might.

With the US war machine set to flex its muscles in Iraq, this argument is about to be graphically confirmed.

The WTO is an organisation, not of corporations, but of states. These states advance the interests of multinationals based in their home countries. The biggest players in the WTO, known as the "Quad" - the US, European Union, Japan and to a lesser extent, Canada - set the agenda. Whenever they agree, they gang up on poorer countries in the WTO, imposing trade conditions favourable to themselves.

But at the heart of the capitalist system which produces the obscene inequalities we see today is ruthless competition between corporations which are constantly on the lookout for new ways to make profits. So when the interests of these "hostile brothers" don't align, they engage in trade wars.

Like when the US challenged the EU's ban on hormone-treated beef. US corporate profits trumped public health concerns. So with the US ruling the roost, the WTO is a weapon wielded in the name of US-based corporations.

But at the end of the day, if the WTO and other institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund cease to effectively promote the US corporate agenda, the US will use brutal force. I am not going to review here the evidence from Indonesia and East Timor, Yugoslavia and the Balkans, Nicaragua, Cuba and Colombia. But it is pertinent to remember that the US is still the only country to have used the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the atomic bomb, to send a clear message to its post-World War II rivals about just who was boss.

WTO rules are based on the premise that the only legitimate role of government is providing a military to protect the interests of corporations, and a police force to ensure order within. So while the WTO strikes down regulations for workers' rights, education and the environment, one sacred cow remains: the arms industry.

Governments are given free rein to take any action "necessary for the protection of [their] essential security interests...relating to the traffic in arms...and implements of war and such traffic in other goods...as is carried on directly for the purpose of supplying the military establishment."

This "security exception" protects the massive subsidies US arms contractors receive from the state. With Bush senior working for an arms manufacturer, the Carlyle Group, George W. Bush's family is making untold sums from the war he is directing against "terrorism".

Irrespective of this direct tangling of interests, with the rise of rival trading blocs it is quite clear how the US plans to assert its supremacy in world politics and economics. It is by maintaining a military that cannot be matched by any other power.

The Pentagon budget is US$368 billion, 15 times greater than that of its nearest rival and more than what it was even during the height of the Cold War arms race. In a warning to the US's competitors, Bush stated in his State of Union address: "All nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation's security."

The WTO rules reflect the reality of economic and military competition between states in the name of their ruling classes. The military are the ultimate enforcers of WTO rules, making the world safe for capital.

We need to oppose the WTO every step of the way. We must not settle for anything less than a world without poverty, exploitation and war. Our rulers don't want to awaken the "sleeping giant" - the workers that they govern and exploit. We hope that in the struggle against these institutions of global capitalism, we will.