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A method to the madness

Last updated on: September 22, 2003 16:32 IST

Almost from the founding of the United Nations, smaller countries around the world -- and a notably large one in South Asia -- have complained that the global body and the world order it maintains lean unfairly against their interests. Through various arms of the UN, most importantly the Security Council, decisions are made that favour a select few nations -- primarily the council's permanent members, but also to a lesser degree Japan, Germany, Israel, and others that are part of the western alliance. On most international issues, nearly all exercise of political power reflects a balance between these countries' interests.

Understandably, it has been often demanded that this should change. First, it is argued that the world today is nothing like it was in 1945, when the UN was established, and newer arrangements of power are therefore needed.

Second, the UN's own professed goals -- the promotion of freedoms, rights, etc around the earth -- demand a more equitable order, not the perpetual denigration of some states by others. Various ideas have been put forward to reduce the imbalance of power: the inclusion of more states in the Security Council, the elimination of veto powers, greater authority for the General Assembly, etc.

Nonetheless these arguments have routinely been defeated, and the lip-service paid to the issue is readily understood as such by one and all. The 10-year old United Nations Open Ended Working Group on the Question of Equitable Representation on and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Other Matters related to the Security Council, its never-ending title notwithstanding, just finished yet another of its regular reports. Among the chief recommendations is that during the next annual session of the General Assembly the inquiry should continue, and a further report be submitted!

No surprises there; what's one more year in a charade that is already a decade old? Nor is this deceit limited to the United Nations; only months ago the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund completed similar examinations of their operations and arrived at more or less identical conclusions. This is apparently not the time to enlarge the role of
developing nations within those institutions, either.

The Permanent Five -- Britain, the US, France, China and Russia -- and especially the first three of those are routinely assailed by other states for thwarting all efforts at reform. New Delhi has been particularly bitter, for it correctly sees itself as among the most likely capitals to gain from any change.

India's case -- on economic, military, democratic and other grounds -- is so compelling that almost any reconfiguration of authority will strengthen its hand. To remain eligibly at the verge of power forever is irrelevance of a particularly frustrating kind.

But why? If our economic, military, and other capabilities are truly significant, and our democratic credentials a shining example among the formerly colonised states of the world, why has it remained impossible to advance our claims to a greater share of global authority?

The answer lies in separating the fact of being lumped with the world's disenfranchised states from the processes by which this occurs. There is a method to the institutional madness that suffocates the developing world, and the powers-that-be have developed the infrastructure to deploy it in ways advantageous to them. And although the spotlight of criticism has shone mostly upon the UN, the World Bank and the IMF, to really understand how powerful nations have institutionalised their advantage, look to that other multilateral body -- the World Trade Organisation.

At the WTO, the disproportionate voting rights that the P-5 have in the UNSC and the controlling shares rich nations hold at the financial institutions are both absent. Nonetheless, during the last decade this one-nation-one-vote institution has emerged an equally powerful organ, as important to securing the advantage of the developed countries as the conventionally vilified three.

How? If veto power in the Security Council is an intolerable remnant of colonial power, and if the stacked boardrooms of the IMF and WB promote organised economic crime against the planet's majority, how is it that the WTO, which affords neither advantage to the global powers, is a similarly powerful instrument of their designs upon the world?

Enter the method to the madness. The infrastructure for public policy in developing nations -- even ones like India which boast quite a range of industry -- is very weak. The trade organisation is a complex beast, and a small army of lawyers, accountants, writers, and other professionals in the west is enlisted to create and maintain this complexity.

Here's Jagdish Bhagwati, newly shedding his previous endorsements of free trade, as quoted by William Greider in The Nation: "When I looked through the investment agreements, it was worse than reading my insurance policy for the fine print. I couldn't make anything out of it, and I'm a reasonably informed person, a pretty smart economist as they go".

The fine print isn't just unintelligible, it cloaks the trade regime in such detail that it defeats all informed citizenship and fair play. Take agriculture -- which held center-stage at the WTO discussions in Cancun, Mexico -- in which the trade body's regulatory mechanisms have destroyed developing economies' ability to compete fairly with rich nations.

Although hundreds of billions of dollars are funneled to American and European agri-businesses each year from their governments, within the WTO there is disagreement over whether these constitute unfair subsidies. It would seem a straightforward matter to decide whether governments are giving their citizens a competitive leg up, but in fact even identifying a subsidy can be a difficult proposition in Geneva.

Governments can support their industries in many ways -- erecting tariffs, providing cheap credit for exports, guaranteeing price support, among others -- and developed nations have a fuller range of these options. By selectively eliminating only those support systems that developing states can also provide it is possible to pretend that the playing field is level.

And when those subsidies that remain are attacked as unfair, the typical response is to draft extensive 'new' proposals with a different distribution of the same subsidies, each time providing lengthy legal and economic reasoning to justify the shift. This is a nimble approach, where each criticism is met with a revised offer that merely rearranges the same cards.

Developing nations can contend with this process only if they too maintain armies of professionals to challenge every turn, an unrealistic expectation.

More typically, countries lacking the resources and mechanisms to question the validity of each revision eventually yield. Agriculture is but one example; other agreements that are similarly unfair are now in the works in other industries -- health care, tourism, intellectual property, drugs, etc.

What options remain, then? If differences of opinion must be sorted out through complex institutions and processes that place developing nations at a disadvantage, what hope can there be of overcoming this handicap? The answer lies within the question itself.

If weaker states hope to rearrange the world order more equitably, they must first defeat the complexity that maintains it. Free traders must be forced to explain why their faith in economic freedom hasn't expanded to include people -- i.e. why, when money, machines, and intellectual capital are free to roam the planet, people are still confined to their lands of citizenship.

The P-5's calls for restraint from further nuclear development and deployment must be met with demands for a timetable for disarmament. Our continuing membership in the United Nations, or troop deployments to support other people's wars under questionable UN auspices should be linked to reform for equity in its structure, elimination of veto powers, and moving a few of its arms outside North America and Europe.

These expectations aren't new; what is important is that they not be repeatedly diluted at the point of negotiation, and that any agreement with the developed nations be judged against these basic demands. Their value is amply demonstrated by the few instances where the global order's imposition of western authority upon developing nations have been successfully defeated.

To Indians, the most familiar of these exceptions is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. By rejecting the treaty's apartheid framework at the outset, we defeated the various mechanisms of scrutiny and sanction by which other nations were contained. Five years after the tests at Pokhran invited rhetorical condemnation from one and all, India's nuclear ambitions
have reached more or less the same plane of acceptance as those of the P-5.

North Korea is now pursuing a similar outside-the-bounds course, and all of President Bush's moves to counter this keep returning to the basic question of the North actually possessing nuclear weapons. Reality is a powerful deterrent to nuanced arguments forbidding it.

Obfuscation is power, as Greider points out. India and other developing nations must invest in scientific, legal and economic infrastructure that can represent their interests in international negotiations; this is critical to breaking out of the institutionalised complexity that now hurts their interests. But pending such change, the demands for equity must be
made in readily understandable terms, especially ones that challenge the rich nations to prove their claims to good intentions.

Ashwin Mahesh