Things to do to fix up globalisation

Into the shower of new books on globalisation stumps Mike Moore with his high-pressure garden hose and a tankful of nostrums, perceptions, anecdotes, life-experiences, quips, metaphors, sound-bites and serious proposals.

His new book, A World Without Walls: Freedom, Development, Free Trade and Global Governance*, wants to convert us to free trade, accept the globalised world and fix up the myriad imperfections in its governing institutions.

But his is no simplistic paeon to free trade. “It’s dangerous when free trade and the virtues of markets are lifted to a level of theology. No one single idea solves everything.” He wants corporations to practise social responsibility, in their own and society’s interests.

Moore will be a young man in a hurry when he’s 70. His urgent restlessness has always been infectious, his enthusiasms contagious. He is likeable and yearns to be liked. All that is in this new book, the humorous self-deprecation, the self-congratulation (in this case, for achievements as Director-General of the World Trade Organisation 1999-02), the tumbling torrent of ideas, the staccato, machinegun phrases.

The other Mike Moore is in this book, too. The chip on the shoulder at not being taken seriously here at home by fellow-politicians, journalists and intellectuals, the arrogance of the self-taught and self-made, the self-aggrandisement. As he might put it, to be published by a prestigious university (Cambridge) gives the fingers to those who have called him a flake — just as getting the WTO job was.

There are deeper recent analyses of his themes. One by his former assistant at the WTO, Philippe Legrain**, backing free trade but wanting improvements in the rules, was reviewed here on November 6. On the other side is a book (reviewed on my website, by Peter Singer***, a United States-based Australian philosopher. Both are easy and rewarding reads.

The first two thirds of Moore’s book, though it compiles a wealth of information and is mostly more carefully written than his earlier books, adds little beyond wit and personal anecdote to what others have written. He accepts some of his information a bit too uncritically: Singer’s scan of the literature on whether the poor benefited from trade last century or not (while inconclusive) is much more helpful than Moore’s quoting of averages with only a passing caveat that statistics for the very poorest might be different.

The real value of Moore’s book lies in its third section, when he turns to what should be done to counter the selfish, unjust and anti-development errors and imperfections in the system of international rules of which the WTO forms part. He has been in the thick of it and brings to his prescription a passion for old-fashioned social democratic “progress” combined with a realist’s knowledge of economics and how the world works.

That makes him predictably scathing of the unelected rich-country-funded movements dedicated to wrecking international summits but also predictably respectful of the aims of the more practical sceptics of free trade such as Oxfam ****.

He highlights the mixed messages or self-delusions of many in the anti-globalisation movements which cause them (often unintentionally) to defend rich-country privilege against the poor and refuse the positive engagement which could make trade work better, constrain huge corporations’ often malign (because self-serving) influence on national governments.

These are huge movements, with large budgets for which they are not democratically accountable. They denigrate parliamentary democracy. They lack, in Moore’s judgment, the “humour and irony [which] are preconditions of democracy, open minds and open societies” — though a placard reading “Mike Moore starves the poor” featured on the cover carries an unintentional irony in the light of his childhood and lifelong beliefs.

But Moore wants to move on this debate of the deaf. He wants engagement — “we need constructive critics” — and in his term at the WTO did open up channels for dialogue and made more of its deliberations public. And he sought a two-way dialogue, not just cooption of the “civil society” to the free-trade agenda. That requires a “code of conduct” on both sides.

This is a challenge for business. Moore backs calls for “corporate social responsibility” — both on moral grounds and to build trust. “While global brands command immense trust, the companies that create and build them do not. The challenge for corporates is to leverage the power of their brands for socially positive outcomes.”

Why should they bother? It is easier for multinationals to twist national governments’ arms for privileges and protection than to win the public debate. And apologists insist they have a narrow financial duty to shareholders. But, says Moore, such myopia only adds power to anti-globalisers’ elbow and damages trust, which in the long run is bad for profits.

And if they don’t? “Pray for globalisation,” says Moore. “Open trade forces competition and curbs monopolies and corporate giants by exposing them to competition.”

But that in turn requires better rules and governance of international organisations such as the WTO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Moore devotes a chapter on this, drawing on his experiences.

The man who once wrote in support of a Pacific parliament is also keen on a “democracy caucus” within the United Nations to “promote human rights, transparency and the rule of law”, though he rejects a global parliament, advocated by some, as unworkable. “Only governments can fulfil certain functions of maintaining standards, setting rules of civil and commercial behaviour and determining where social and civic investments should go.”

And, as “all politics are local” (Moore says), governments are a most imperfect vehicle to negotiate the reforms he thinks necessary. But then, when he is not in one of his black moods, Moore exudes optimism. That is a saving grace of his book.

* Mike Moore, A World Without Walls: Freedom Development, Free Trade and Global Governance, Cambridge, 2003, pp292

** Philippe Legrain, Open World: The Truth about Globalisation (Abacus, London), 377pp.

*** Peter Singer, One World: the Ethics of Globalisation (Text Publishing, Melbourne), 255 pp, $35.99

**** Oxfam International, Rigged Rules and Double Standards: trade, globalisation and the fight against poverty, 2002