Addressing a full-capacity Forum audience, Pascal Lamy began by rambling on metaphysically about the etymology of governance (Latin, ‘rudder’) and current trends in global governance when a bearded man suddenly stood up and began yelling “WTO means death to farmers, WTO means death to fisher-folk, WTO means death to healthcare…”
He was ejected by Security. Lamy went on. A few minutes later, another man in a red bandanna stood up in a different part of the audience and excercised his lungs in much the same vein. He too was ejected.
But by now Lamy was startled. Perhaps he didn’t quite expect protestors within the premises of the K-School. He gripped the podium with both hands, looked up at his audience, and said “Ok, let’s get into it, then.”
What followed was by some distance the best Forum lecture I’ve attended here so far. Lamy, in stereotypical French-accented English, was honest, admitting several things that are seriously wrong with the structure of the WTO but strongly holding to the fact that the organization is accountable, democratic, has robust dispute mechanisms, and is not solely concerned with the welfare of the rich and powerful.
Throughout his speech, he was interrupted by what was clearly an organized bunch of protestors, who knew fully well that anyone who yelled out would be thrown out, and began to receive scattered applause for their persistent interjections.
But Lamy too went doggedly on. Yes, he said, the basic premise of the WTO is that open markets are good because they facilitate the greatest efficiency of trade, but the WTO is also concerned with the environment, human rights and public values, all of which individual governments are free to prioritize over trade if they choose to. In fact, he even went so far as to say that trade restrictions in the future will increasingly be values-based.
Yes, he admitted, the biggest stumbling block today is agriculture, where the US (high subsidies, low tariffs), the EU (high subsidies, high tariffs) and India (high tariffs, low subsidies) are slugging it out while the rest of the world takes a “coffee break”.
Yes, he agreed, there is a bias against developing countries in the rules of the game and unless those rules are changed, the WTO will remain stuck where it is. But, he insisted, the problem is with politics, not the process.
Still, as the questions became more and more pointed – not so many from undergrads, thank goodness – Lamy’s practised veneer began to crack. The already eroding party-line evaporated into the cauldron of the Forum when he admitted that his hands were tied by the members of the WTO and that if we wanted to make things better, we need to go as far as fundamentally changing the Westphalia System of 1648.
Yes, he carried on, political decolonization happened fifty years ago but economic decolonization is only now starting to happen. What his member-constituents made of these admissions I have no idea but Lamy’s own private views seemed reasonably clear: the WTO is not the devil but it is unequal and we need to change that.
The protestors were annoying and the questioners were impressive, but if together they combined to make the head of the WTO publicly admit the organization is fundamentally unequal, then everybody did their jobs.