Nov 6, 1982
GATT AND THE EMPEROR'S CLOTHES
Geneva Nov (IPS) by Chakravarthi Raghavan -- GATT's hour of truth will be in October -November when decisions have to be made, and a mere formulation of words will not do, the Director-General of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Mr Arthur Dunkel said in August in an interview.
October has come and gone, and ministers will soon be around in Geneva in the last week of November.
In the fable, the Emperor and his citizens were able to see the truth when a child, innocent and unafraid, saw no fine gold clothes on the emperor and shouted the emperor was naked.
No such child, or any outsider, will be present when the ministers and their entourage meet in Geneva's International Conference Centre, with all the fanfare of media buildup and publicity that has been going on for months. As now scheduled, the press will not be allowed in either.
It was in 1946 that the United Nations General Assembly laid down the basic policy of the organization to public information and access to it. With refinements over time this is still the basic guideline for the UN system.
But GATT being a 'contract' and an 'agreement' has always been closed to the public and the press, and no press freedom committee anywhere has protested though they raise vociferous campaigns when UNESCO holds a small consultation in private.
At GATT the press has to depend on briefings by the official spokesmen and talk to delegates. It has no access officially even to the basic documents and reports before a meeting. With all the professional competence and desire to be helpful on the part of the spokesmen, they function within the limitations of the dominant structures of GATT. If the Third World views get less known than those of the industrialized world, and within them of the USA and the EEC, it is also due to the transnational information system, and the fact that there are less than a handful reporting for Third World media from Geneva.
Third World countries are increasingly concerned about this, and are trying to get the ministerial meeting atleast thrown open to the press, though they know even this will have only limited effect on the reportage - the US and EEC views will still be covered globally, with perhaps those of other individual countries beamed back to their respective countries.
In the over a score and more of international and intergovernmental organizations spawned in the postwar world with the founding of the United Nations in the name of the peoples of the world, GATT is a peculiar animal.
It began as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and was intended to be only a temporary arrangement for multilateral trade, until the more permanent framework envisaged in the Havana Charter, the International Trade Organization, came into being and took over.
The US Senate would have none of it - deep protectionist fears over lowcost productions of Europe prevailed - and the ITO was aborted.
Even then for a long time, GATT continued its temporary existence. It had no secretariat of its own. The Agreement was administered by the Interim Commission for an International Trade Organization (ICITO), with the main function of registering the commitments entered into under the General Agreement. The term 'secretariat' for GATT, when it came into vogue, was spelt only with a small 's' and not in capital letters, and its executive was called only the 'executive secretary', becoming the Director-General only in 1963.
GATT, and the diplomats accredited to it, pride themselves in being a 'contract' and 'agreement' and not an 'organization' like the other specialized agencies -- such as WHO, FAO etc, or organs of the General Assembly like UNCTAD and UNIDO.
It was John Collins Bossidy who said in 1910,
"And this is good old Boston
the home of the bean and the cod
where the Lowells talk to the Cabots
and the Cabots talk only to God".
Among the international organizations, this about sums up the relationships of the plebian and universal UN and its agencies on the one hand and the less universal but more powerful IMF-IBRD-GATT system on the other. The god (supplanting those of all religions - Hindu, Jew, Christian, Islam et al) is "the market". Bossidy never told us whether God talked to Cabots nor do we know whether the Market talks to the trio, but they are the prophets of this God, and even the ungodly Marxists are beginning to listen to them.
Unintentionally, but symbolically nevertheless, this special relationship is reflected in the tentative schedule recommended by the preparatory committee for the three-day ministerial meeting. On its opening day, Nov 24, the morning session will hear some ministers and the chief executives of the IMF and the World Bank. On the next day will come the turn of the United Nations (perhaps through the Director-General for International Economic Cooperation, the second highest ranking person in the entire UN system) and last the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
Unconventional new wisdom that accepts market theories but refuses to deify it, is that the roots of growth and prosperity lay elsewhere, and GATT merely accommodated itself to the new production structures and trade flows. This implies that unless it again accommodates itself to the new realities - new production structures, and economic and trade weights in the world of the socialists and Third World - it would collapse. This would perhaps be too much for the GATT and the ministers to it to accept, for it puts most of them out of business.
Traditional wisdom of GATT and the prophets of the market is that postwar growth and prosperity was due to the GATT system and obedience to the laws of the market. The non-traditional, yet market-philosophy wisdom of UNCTAD, is that postwar growth and prosperity was essentially due to fact that Europe and Japan were able to rebuild through exceptions and departures from GATT principles.
If GATT wisdom is correct, ministers must go back to pristine GATT free trade principles, roll back both blatant and hidden, protectionist measures. If non-traditional wisdom is right, either one went back to first principles providing special treatment favoring the Third World, or accepted the realities of 'managed trade' and bring it under discipline of agreed rules and multilateral surveillance.
What will the ministers do? Will they see the truth or will it elude them?