For the last thirty years I have been involved in trade negotiations at various levels – global, regional and bilateral. I attended the very first World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial meeting in Singapore in 1996, and since then I have attended practically all WTO Ministerials, often officially representing my own country (Uganda) but also other countries (Kenya and Tanzania). Between 2005 and 2009 I attended the meetings as the Executive Director of the South Centre.
I have also been directly involved for close to thirty years in the negotiations between the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries and the European Union, often as part of Uganda’s delegation but also as a civil society activist.
Trade is no doubt vital for the welfare of human beings. We produce food; we produce other means of physical and social existence. We need to sell what we produce. People have been trading since time immemorial. Trade does not have to be war. It can be a means to peaceful development of the world’s people – it can be, and has been in past centuries. But in our times it is not. With the dawn of Capitalism, trade has become a weapon of war between the rich nations of the West and the rest of the world.
I need to explain the use of the word ‘war’. It is not war with bombs and drones. But trade can be as lethal, and as much of a ‘weapon of mass destruction’, as bombs. Trade in the capitalist-imperial era kills people; it drives people into poverty; it creates wealth at one end and poverty at another; it enriches the powerful food corporations at the cost of marginalising poor peasants; it turns the poor into economic refugees in their own countries, or migrants – at least those who can and dare to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, or across the seas from South Asia to Australia, or from the Mexican border to the USA. Today these migrants make vital contributions to the economy and culture of the host peoples. But, they also become targets of attack by neo-fascist and racist elements in these societies.
Slave trade, opium trade and commodities trade
For the last five hundred years trade has been a serial war against the peoples of the South. From the slave trade to the commodities trade, it has been a story of relentless war against the countries that supplied slaves some five hundred years ago … and commodities since the beginning of the industrialisation of western economies.
In the 17th- 18th centuries, the English ‘trade’ with India ended up with England colonising India. England was also trading with China. China was more or less self-sufficient and had no particular urge to trade with England, but the latter needed Chinese tea, silk, porcelain, etc. England did not have enough silver to finance this trade, and so during the eighteenth century it forced China to accept opium instead. The Chinese were not keen on opium, and this led to the so-called ‘Opium Wars’, also known as the Anglo-Chinese Wars, from 1839 to 1860. Before the century was out, Europe converted trade into colonising the coastal cities of China under forced unequal treaties.
In 1884-85 the European nations met in Berlin and divided up Africa among themselves. They followed this with cold-blooded wars against the people of Africa to conquer and reduce them to commodity colonies. Then they fought two wars among themselves (1914–18 and 1939–45), joined by two other imperial nations – Japan and the United States – in order to re-divide the conquered world in relation to the changing balance of forces within the imperialist camp. Today, these wars continue at both levels – at the level of the collective war waged by the dominant nations against the weaker nations, and at the level of intra-imperialist rivalries.
There is no such thing as ‘free’ trade or ‘fair’ trade
The inequities of the global trading system are glossed over in an ideological camouflage – the all-pervasive ideology that under ‘free trade’ the resources of the world are most efficiently and productively allocated on the basis of comparative or competitive advantages. This is a gross myth. Free trade is a fantasy. There is no evidence that ‘free trade’ ever existed since the dawn of capitalism. Civil society organisations (the so-called ‘NGOs’) talk about ‘fair trade’. It has a ‘feel good’ effect about it and, yes, it has a sound ethical basis to it. But that, too, is a fantasy, an illusion. How can there be ‘free’ or ‘fair’ trade when trade in real life is an instrument of war and predation?
The WTO as the main arena of global trade war
At the apex of a pyramid of international organisations – global and regional – is the World Trade Organisation (WTO). It is a veritable war machine. Africa, in particular, is the most victimised continent under the WTO, but even the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are vulnerable. BRICS are, of course, large countries. However, in the arena of world trade, technology, intellectual property and international finance, they are still relatively weak, compared to the collective power of the Empire – the US, Europe and Japan.
The WTO is essentially a conspiratorial organisation. Its decisions are made by a few powerful members (plus a small number of countries from the South selected by the North) in the so-called ‘green rooms’. These decisions are then binding even on those not present. If small and middle-sized countries do not ‘follow the rules’ as dictated by the big and powerful, they are subjected to sanctions.
The other side of the coin
However – and this is the other side of the coin – it is not all victory for the powerful and defeat for the weak. The outcome of war is not always one-sided. In the long march of history, the weaker peoples and nations can, and do, unite and fight back. The powerful nations develop internal contradictions within their own countries and between them, creating the possibility for weaker nations to build alliances and defeat their erstwhile colonisers. This is also happening – to some extent – in the realm of trade.
Several of the WTO Ministerial conferences – including at Seattle in 1999 and Cancun in 2003 – simply collapsed under the weight of opposition from the countries of the South and solidarity action by the peoples and NGOs of the North. But it is an uneven struggle. At the November 2013 Ministerial meeting in Bali, the mighty and powerful managed to promote their issues with their carrot and stick strategy. As for Africa, because of its fragmentation, aid dependence, and timid political leadership, it failed to get the ‘trade facilitation’ issue off the agenda. Africa also made very little progress on the ‘development’ issues for which it had fought so hard in Doha in 2001.
The next WTO Ministerial will take place in December 2015 in Nairobi. The Government of Kenya is already coming under considerable pressure from the imperial nations as well as the WTO bureaucracy to make it a ‘success’.
Success for whom? That is the question.
War and Peace
After nearly thirty years in the trenches of trade war (not alone, of course), I decided to tell my (our) story. If you don’t write your story, others will write it for you.
It is not a story that the neoliberal ideologists would like to hear. But it is a story which has resonance among those who have been victims of trade wars. Stark options face those who fight trade wars, for the consequences of victory or defeat are, or can be, catastrophic.
Telling a simple narrative, however, is an insufficient objective. My objective for writing ‘Trade is War’ * is deeper than simply arguing that trade is war. There are moral issues that underlie trade, just as they do all other kinds of war. Issues of ‘fair play’ or ‘levelling the playing field’ crop up all the time even as the rough-and-tumble of trade wars turn these illusions to dust.
What inspired me to write the book, above all, is a desire to keep alive the spirit of revolutionary optimism. In the last chapter of the book I discuss the strategy and tactics of what I dare to call ‘guerrilla war against imperial peace’. If you want peace, prepare for war. I hold the view that nonviolent methods of resolving conflicts over trade are less divisive, more effective and more enduring. The capitalist ship is sinking – not overnight of course – but time has come to launch a thousand boats in the ocean creating self-sustaining communities that trade among themselves on the basis of peace and mutual respect. There is no reason to slide into cynicism and despair when one is seemingly overpowered by bigger forces.
This is where I stand.
*The book is published in English by OR-Books (in New York and London) and by Mkuki na Nyota (in Dar es Salaam), and in French by CETIM (in Geneva). Here are the links.