NAFTA and the Promises and Perils of the New Internationalism.


Allen Hunter

This article originally appeared in Social Policy

In the early 1990s fair trade activists in Canada, Mexico and the United States created national coalitions and transnational networks to oppose NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). In doing so they contributed to an exciting and hopefully significant new phase and kind of internationalism, an internationalism based on mutual solidarity between movements in different countries, an internationalism which ultimately seeks to reorient the direction of development in the North as well as the South. This article is a plug for this new internationalism, and a plea that its dilemmas and tensions be squarely faced.

Previous internationalisms have been defined by commitments to borderless proletarian solidarity, to support for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist wars of national liberation, and more recently, by Northern nonprofit organizations and religious bodies addressing economic inequities and environmental degradation in the South by providing funds, technical assistance and lobbying efforts for social movements and development projects. To clarify what is new about the internationalism or transnational solidarity to which fair trade activism contributed, it is useful to distinguish four approaches to development.

Today's mainstream development model is consistent with the neo-liberal celebration of the free market: rapid, ceaseless economic growth is the route to development understood as "projecting the American model of society onto the rest of the world."1 Among its defining features are cultural homogenization via consumerism, democracy restricted to the electoral realm and heavily circumscribed by property rights, and the overweening power of corporate elites. State regulation of the economy is considered anti-growth, so cutting the social wage is considered essential to development. Environmental problems, in this model, are best dealt with via market mechanisms. With slight differences, this is the version of development promoted by the US government, and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. It is the view of the economy which guided the Canadian, Mexican and US economic and political elites in their drive to integrate the North American economy via NAFTA. Like the first, the second model assumes that where the North has been the South shall and should be, but only by ending Northern imperial domination of the South. This is the position associated with orthodox Marxism and variants such as underdevelopment theory. With the crisis of the Soviet model, the growing attention to environmental degradation, and the rise of peasant, gender, racial and ethnic social movements the second model is giving way to a third which does not seek to reproduce the northern developmental model, but replace it with sustainable development or people-centered development or alternative development. Alternative development stresses popular, democratic empowerment, local control, a diversity of models, environmental sustainability.

As different as they are, all three models assume the northern trajectory remains the same. A fourth model--so far more implict in different regional and global networks than explicitly elaborated--is emerging in response to economic globalization, and calls for political transformation in the North as well as in the South and in relations between the regions. This innovation is to be welcomed by those committed to global equity because alternative development has to take place in the North if it is to have a chance of success in the South. In responding to globalization from above--which is increasing inequality within and between nations, eroding the soil which nourishes democracy, and threatening the globe's ecology--transnational networks are creating an alternative globalization from below.1

Whatever the future of socialism may be, globalization from below is different from Marxist proletarian internationalism in crucial ways. Class is not the fundamental category, a revolution to overthrow capitalism is not the explicit goal, and seizing state power is not the core strategy. The new internationalism is being produced by many social groups, including workers, women, peasants, indigenous peoples, environmentalists; it thus it has diverse, overlapping, largely (but not only) complementary goals. These goals include economic and gender equity, environmental sustainability, cultural autonomy for diverse peoples and respect for basic human rights, and democracy. It is less focussed on seizing states than on changing what states do and how they do it; in addition it is concerned with gaining greater popular control over various international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF and strengthening civil societies within countries and transnationally. The new internationalism does not seek to infuse people everywhere with a single identity, but to draw out those aspects of diverse identities which are compatible with the struggle for global equity and sustainability.

The promise of globalization from below is that transnational networks will gain sufficient strength that they can modify the direction of development toward equity and sustainability and expand the vitality and domains of diverse democratic forms of political involvement within and across borders. Globalization should contribute to the upward not downward harmonization of living standards, rights, and environmental protection. Rather than allowing corporate-dominated globalization to weaken democracy, labor union strength, and environmental oversight, transnational activists argue that the rules and practices of globalization can and should be modified to contribute to increasing equity betwen nations and regions of the world. The assumption is that leveling upward serves the interests of constituencies in better-off as well as poorer regions. It is harder to depress wages by threatening to shift production if wage disparities are cut; it is harder to oppose environmental regulation if similar regulations exist in many nations and/or enforceable global mechanisms are in place. For interest groups with a single issue focus or committed reformists, some leveling upward in poorer regions would be consistent with the maintanence of basically stable dynamics in the North. But for people committed to upward harmonization across multiple issues, for feminists, indigenous peoples and people of color committed to attacking the cultural as well as economic dimensions of domination and exclusion, and for people committed to sustainable economies, then leveling upward necessarily involves political activism in the North on behalf of people who live there as well as in solidarity with people elsewhere.

We have as yet only the vaguest idea of the extent and nature of global change necessary to move the world substantially in the direction of equity and sustainability. Yet, as is generally the case, people do not await theoretical clarity before acting, and it is partially through reflection on their actions that such clarification will take place. The emergence of the fair trade networks was most directly, of course, a response to the elite initiatives for continential economic integration. But more broadly the networks were formed in response to the dynamics of economic globalization; in addition the mutual focus on globalization provided one way for many groups (becoming impatient with issue, identity, and geographic fragmentation) to create common agendas and coordinate strategies. The fair trade campaigns, as the movements in opposition to NAFTA came to be collectively known, built upon existing transnational ties which individuals and member groups had already cultivated. These ties were forged through worker-to-worker initiatives, cross-border environmental actions, support for the workers in the Maquiladoras, and immigrant rights groups.1

Creating a new internationalism was not the original impulse behind opposition to free trade; that tendency only emerged in the process of organizing tri-nationally against NAFTA. Anti-free trade organizing began in Canada in the mid-1980s in opposition to the US Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA, ratified in 1989). Canadian labor unions, but also environmental, women's, indigenous peoples', religious, and other organizations created a national coalition first known as the Pro-Canada Network (PCN). Its name was later changed to the Action Canada Network (ACN) because anti-free trade Quebec nationalists did not consider themselves Pro-Canada. At this stage, Canadians had few US counterparts as allies to oppose the bi-national trade agreement and were more focussed on opposing the FTA than building transnational solidarity. But with the tri-national decision (1990-1991) to expand the free trade agreement to Mexico, US and Mexican networks also emerged to coordinate domestic and transnational opposition to NAFTA.

The Mexican fair trade network, the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC) was formed in early 1991 following a meeting the previous Fall between a number of Mexican and Canadian organizations, including the ACN. Mainly based in the Mexico, D.F. region, RMALC networks over 100 labor, environmental, women's, peasant, and urban community groups. The impulse toward coordinated social movement activism in Mexico have roots in the popular response to the devastating earthquake in 1985 and the fradulent election in 1988, and REMALC is but one of several issue-oriented NGO networks which have been formed recently in Mexico.1

In the US fair trade groups formed in the early 1990s, with roots in farmers groups worried about the FTA and GATT dating to the late 1980s. Initiatives came from national, local, and regional labor, environmental, farmer, and solidarity organizations around the country and from Washington-based groups NGOs and the national offices of various labor, environmental and other organizations, including Ralph Nader's Public Citizen. Passing through various organizational incarnations, by 1992 there were two main organizations, the Citizen's Trade Campaign (CTC) and the Alliance for Responsible Trade (ART). CTC mainly focussed on domestic organizing drawing together local fair trade campaigns as well as national movements and interest groups; ART did more transnational networking; many individuals and organizations were involved in both. What did these networks (or coalitions)1 do? They provided flows of educational materials about NAFTA (and later GATT); they located or did their own research to challenge the optimistic economic forecasts of the pro-NAFTA economists; they raised sufficient funds to hire fair trade organizers to pull local coalitions together; they did some PR work as well as produce and show videos. They held regular telephone conference calls to give local activists a sense of being part of a larger movement and to strategize; they used email for domestic and transnational sharing of news, analysis and strategic debate. Similar, if less dense, forms of networking took place tri-nationally. While there was some division of labor between those activists primarily oriented toward domestic work and those primarily involved in developing and maintaining transnational linkages, many national strategists and policy analysts as well as regional grassroots organizers were heavily involved in both.

If there was such a relatively dense intermingling of domestic and transnational activists there was also a broad agreement among progressives in the US that economic integration in principle but was fine, but not along the lines NAFTA was intended to lock in place. While fair trade activists generally felt they did not have cogent alternatives to offer in NAFTA's place, many believed, or came to believe, that the best alternative would not be found merely in rejection or reform of NAFTA itself, but in a broad alternative to the neo-liberal model as a whole. Thus, for instance, they were concerned to organize cross-border worker-to-worker visits in the belief that by developing personal ties with their counterparts in Mexico US workers would be less likely to form views about globalization framed by protectionist and racist views. Through a series of tri-national (and increasingly hemispheric) discussions fair trade activists have spent the past several years refining a transnational position paper offering "A Just and Sustainable Trade and Development Initiative for the Western Hemisphere."

The search for political alternatives involves an ongoing interaction between vision and power. Without vision the exercise of power will change little; without power--the capacity to mobilize large numbers of people with the desire, skills and collective strength to transform visions into reality--visions remain beyond reach and can lose their attraction. The promises of a politics of transnational mutual solidarity derives strength from a vision of empowering those who currently have little power; that is among its attractions for radicals. Yet a dilemma for transnational networks is that they can offer most to their allies in other countries when they leverage power in their own countries, when they have the capacity to help determine major political outcomes. But the search for such leverage can sacrifice mutual solidarity through concessions to the real and presumed exigencies of coalitional politics.

Framing opposition to free trade as part of a larger effort at countering neo-liberalism generally demands a transformative vision, and has consequences for the kinds of coalitions which can be sustained. Framing opposition to free trade as a matter for the nation to decide entails another vision and leads to quite different coalitions. Since domestic coalitions are likely to have some members more committed to nationalist than transnational solutions, the domestic dimension of transnational networks are likely to be politically unstable. To the extent that powerful domestic allies induce more nationalist responses, then tensions can arise within domestic coalitions and worry allies in other countries. The understandable emphasis which CTC leaders placed on defeating NAFTA in Congress led to precisely this outcome.

In entering the fray of national "hardball" politics around NAFTA (and GATT) some fair trade activists defended US sovereignty--sometimes in alarmist tones--as the reason for opposing the treaties. The purpose of political rhetoric is to encourage attention to some concerns and make attention to others concerns more difficult. When focussed on a single issue--in this case whether to support or oppose NAFTA--political rhetoric persuades by connecting the specific issue to other issues and to visions of a morally ordered world. Yet since, at any given moment, different social groups and organized constituencies have quite different visions of moral order, linguistic strategies intended to make a political position appealing to some constituencies or help forge alliances with particular organizations can make it harder to sustain or build ties to other groups. Framing opposition to NAFTA and GATT as threats to sovereignty played upon nationalist fears and downplayed a politics of mutual solidarity.

To be sure, it is difficult to effect major political outcomes while ignoring the dominant frames within which they are placed; and if movements are not powerful enough to shift the frames they may have to accomodate to them, or at least offer variants of them, to be taken seriously. In a context in which the Bush and Clinton administrations presented free trade and NAFTA as beneficial for all and protectionists like Perot evoked fears of a giant sucking drawing jobs South, it was difficult to avoid appealing to nationalism and protectionism or conceeding to elite versions of internationalism. At its best the US fair trade campaign escaped this trade-off which has historically defined trade politics precisely through its ties with transnational activists to their North and South, and commitment to mutual solidarity.

Two related aspects of the fair trade campaign contributed to a partial shift away from transnational solidarity, a) the extent to which decisions in the national campaign were made by those most committed to winning the vote in Congress, and b) the related collaboration with Perot's supporters in United We Stand. Both contributed to a shift of resources toward the legislative agenda away from grassroots organizing which was more committed to situating the issue of NAFTA itself in a global context. In addition the emphasis on winning and working with powerful allies, contributed to the marginalization of those (domestic) constituencies such as Latino/a organizations in the South West engaged in cross-border organizing and immigrant rights work as well as anti-NAFTA politics. It is wrong, I believe, to think that one can narrow the the political focus to a single issue; rather what generally happens is that the issue is framed in a different way.

The tendency to defend sovereignty was as understandable as it was unfortunate. It is indeed hard for democracy to flourish when decisions are made by distant, secretive elites whose power is neither grounded in nor responsive to citizenry. Transnationally democratic forms of governance (may) be created in the future; in seeking to prevent the erosion of (even limited) democratic rule it is easy to see why opponents of NAFTA would focus on the nation. Yet internationalists should oppose upward shifts in power when they are anti-democratic not because they forfeit national sovereignty. The difference is critical since nationalist rhetoric undermines support for the very values--global equity, democratic global governance, and the upward harmonization of living and environmental standards--that animate many US fair trade activists.

Across the campaigns against NAFTA and GATT, and increasing between the NAFTA and GATT votes, numerous flyers, newspaper ads, op-eds, and position papers produced by progressive organizations addressed a general audience of (potential) US opponents to NAFTA and GATT by arguing in defense of US sovereignty. In an August 6, 1992 op-ed in the Los Angeles times Ralph Nader, who was deeply involved in opposing NAFTA and GATT personally and through his organization Public Citizen, called NAFTA a mini-GATT that "could adversly affect our current laws and national sovereignty." The headline of a Winter 1993/94 Public Citizen read "Citizen Beware! Sovereignty and Democracy Under attack by the World Trade Organization," and trade activists were urged to warn their congresspersons that GATT would "Undermine our Sovereignty by allowing foreign countries to challenge U.S. laws in front of a panel of trade bureaucrats in Geneva, Switzerland."

In taking exception to my worries about the nationalist appeals encoded in the rhetoric of sovereignty, some people have properly noted that it is important to distinguish popular sovereignty from national sovereignty. They are right in principle. The sovereignty of "the people" in opposition to the rule by kings or other despots is different from the independence of a sovereign state in an inter-state system.1 Yet, in practice the two more difficult to distinguish; and the examples noted above opposition to the treaties are framed in terms of national not popular sovereignty.
Yet, as fair trade activists themselves demonstrated, appeals to sovereignty are not essential to express worries about loss of democratic control. For instance, in a piece about the anticipated effects of GATT on sustainable agriculture Mark Ritchie, Executive Director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and one of the leading architects of the fair trade campaign in the US, did not argue that the shift to global decision-making erodes "our" sovereignty, but that it is part of a process for "replacing of local, state, and national democratic decision-making with a new global, and mostly unaccountable, policy making institution." While this contrast exaggerates how democratic current local, state and national politics are, the main point--that GATT is as much about articulating power upward and way from democratic control as it is about trade per se--is sound, and is not framed by a nationalist "we-they" mentality. Instead it is shaped around pro- and anti-democracy sentiments that encompass the concerns of people across borders. (From a "GATT facts" flyer on "Sustainable Agriculture" distributed by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, n.d.).

While some anti-NAFTA publicity played upon differences between the US and Mexico, creating an "us/them" division, others raised criticisms of Mexican politics in ways which did not draw upon nationalist sentiments of superiority. A document entitled "Human Rights and Trade: Protecting Fundamental Liberties" was hard hitting in its criticisms of Mexico's continued assault on human rights, but was more measured than other criticisms of Mexico in two ways. First, unlike most human rights statements, it criticized the US for its own selective concern with human rights, and for violations of human rights inside the US itself. Second, it does not call upon the US to exert its power and authority to right wrongs in Mexico. Rather it "calls for each NAFTA partner to ratify the Inter-American court of Human Rights." Note that such ratification is itself a concession of national sovereignty because it calls for nations to adhere to international standards. "The US and Canada," it continued to note, "hav enot yet ratified the convension and none of the three countries have joined the court."

This document was transnational in authorship, and sought transnational solutions. It created openings for addressing issues, such as the treatment of immigrants crossing national borders, which are not easily registered by rhetorics framed by sovereignty. (A Mexican NGO, the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, was involved in producing the document along with the US-based Citizens Trade Campaign, the Alliance for Responsible Trade, and the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. Part of a packet released by Public Citizen in August 1993.)

While I am not aware of any explicit discussions among fair trade activists about the costs and benefits of defending US sovereignty as the emotionally resonate frame for opposing NAFTA (and GATT), differences clearly existed. Two fracture lines were significant.

First, the appeals to US sovereignty were not well-received by Canadian and Mexican fair trade activists (at least those with whom I have spoken). While Canada is more like the US than Mexico along the North-South axis of wealth and development, it is closer to Mexico than the US in that--with smaller economies and culture industries and less powerful political and military states than the US--many people in both fear being dominated by, if not swallowed up, by the US. From outside the US it was understandably difficult to hear appeals to preserving US sovereignty as consistent with calls for mutual solidarity and upward harmonization. It is understandable that Mexicans would worry about nationalist appeals given the economic disparities as well as cultural and linguistic differences, history of US expansion into Mexican territory, and racial hostilities and anti-immigrant mobilizations directed at Mexicans. But Canadians, too, have historically worried about domination by the US. The free trade agreements raised the worry that the East-West economic and communication networks which have contributed to preserving Canadian identity would be overwhelmed by North-South ties integrating Canada with the US. Of concern were not just issues of national cultural identity, but also economic and political issues such as trade union organization, wefare state provisions like socialized health insurance, and the political space for social democratic politics. (Nationalist appeals and worries about sovereignty, of course, were also invoked by some Canadian and Mexican trade activists.)

Second, among US opponents of NAFTA differences existed. One difference was about how much emphasis should be placed on winning the legislative battle vs. grassroots movement building. Another was over what kinds of alliances should be favored. Those who emphasized winning in Congress obviously believed that defeating NAFTA (and later GATT) was the over-riding political priority, and as national leaders and "inside the beltway" players they had the political (and often moral) authority as well as organizational resources to ensure that their priority became the priority of the campaign.

In part the tension between a focus on lobbying Congress and a focus on grassroots organizing was the trade campaign's version of the recurrent tension between "beltway" activists and grassroots organizers. But, it is important to realize that the tension is not only a conflict over political styles or jockying for power; it is also a tension over political priorities. Among the priorities at issue were with whom the national campaign should ally and what issues would be linked to trade. In the Southwest working with the Perot forces and invoking sovereignty militated against working with Latino/a activists already actively opposing NAFTA, especially because Perot supporters and progressive Latino/a organizations had opposing positions on the salient issue of immigration. Thus, even though the ability to wield power--which successfully defeating NAFTA would have demonstrated--is as important in transnational as in domestic politics, the singular focus on winning the legislative battle contributed to reframing the trade issue in ways which undercut transnational commitments.

Perhaps it is only with hindsight that I believe that things could have been done differently. Yet even if that is the case, then it seems worth trying to glean some lessons from the shortcomings as well as the many advances made by the fair trade campaign. Especially since many of the problems were not unique to the NAFTA fight itself, but were manifestations of recurrent dilemmas, it seems reasonable to draw some conclusions: In networks and coalitions it is important that decision-making processes be as transparent and democratic as possible, since there are no general rules which can resolve tensions in coalitions between, among other things, "beltway" and grassroots perspectives. Especially because the US remains the most powerful nation on earth and has a long history of imperial domination, Americans committed to internationalism, to global equity and sustainability, should be leery of using appeals to nationalism. Racial divisions remain crucial fracture lines in US and are replicated in progressive politics; a commitment to anti-racism (including immigrants' rights) implies that the potential racial implications of coalitional politics should be a primary consideration.

I further venture that the more closely we look at the fair trade campaign (and initiatives contributing to the new internationalism of globalization from below) we would find that defending sovereignty is only one example of tensions between transnational and domestic commitments. Yet if I am right that adequate reponses to globalization from above necessitate transforming the North as well as the South then the tensions and dilemmas have to be faced. The more often they are confronted in ways which strengthen transnational democratic alliances the closer we will be to forge a viable new internationalism.



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