Seeds of Conflict

Posted January 3, 2003

Categories: Articles

The Bush administration is behaving like an alpha male in its conflicts with Europe, bellowing and beating its chest to scare the competition. And in letting testosterone determine policy, Washington is out to spread its seed as widely as possible. By pushing genetically modified (GM) seed and produce, the United States wants to remake the world’s food supply from the ground up and decisively control market share in key agricultural commodities. Europe stands in the way.

For the past five years, the European Union has maintained an informal moratorium against new GM products, most of which come from the United States. Before lifting the moratorium, the E.U. quite sensibly wants new regulations in place that would label these newfangled products and establish a tracing system to handle snafus. After persistent lobbying from agribusiness and its political mouthpieces in both parties, the Bush administration on May 13 decided to play hardball — by challenging the E.U. moratorium at the World Trade Organization.

It wouldn’t take a lawsuit to settle this dispute and get the European moratorium lifted. The E.U. is mere months away from approving the new regulations and lifting the moratorium. Even if the United States were successful at the WTO level — and that is far from certain — the E.U. could ignore the ruling just as easily as it ignored an earlier WTO decision on U.S. exports of hormone-treated beef. And European citizens, already furious at U.S. unilateralism in other realms, will be more than happy to boycott genetically modified products from the United States.

The fact is, the Bush administration is not interested in repairing the transatlantic breach. The WTO challenge is all about power and domination, the primary preoccupations of alpha males. A poorly conceived tactic for changing European GM policy, the WTO bid begins to make sense only when viewed at the larger mercantile, multilateral, and geopolitical levels.

At the level of trade, the administration is in revenge mode after suffering several recent setbacks. The E.U. celebrated a victory in 2002 when the WTO ruled against U.S. “antidumping” subsidies to key exporters. The Europeans are on the verge of imposing $4 billion worth of retaliatory sanctions after the WTO ruling that the United States could no longer subsidize corporate exports with tax reductions (through foreign sales corporations). And the WTO is close to ruling against the United States on the steel subsidies implemented in 2002. Protectionist in practice, the Bush administration can afford to live up to its free-trade rhetoric on the GM issue, where the United States has a large technological advantage over other countries.

The issue, after all, is trade, not solving world hunger as the Bush administration claims. U.S. biotech research and food-aid policy is focused primarily on securing markets for U.S. agribusiness. American farm subsidies enable cheap U.S. food products to flood the developing world and overwhelm local production. Genetic modifications in the food supply, far more tied to corporate interests than the nonproprietary advances of the “green revolution,” make farmers in developing countries more dependent on Monsanto and other U.S. biotech giants. Not surprisingly, Washington’s attempts to sneak GM products into U.S. food aid have led to official protests and even the destruction of shipments not only in the well-publicized southern African cases but in Ecuador, India and Bosnia as well.

The E.U. is divided on whether to establish a counterforce to U.S. unilateralism or to be satisfied as a junior partner in a U.S.-led imperial condominium.

By hauling the E.U. to the WTO, the Bush administration can also respond to domestic industry pressures while asserting unilateral power in multilateral institutions. Earlier in the year, Washington deep-sixed an agreement brokered at the WTO to provide cheap medicines to the global poor, which infuriated not only the developing world and European allies but also WTO officials. The U.S. pharmaceutical industry, which opposed the agreement, was ebullient. American agribusiness wants some of the same juice.

The largest issue, however, is geopolitical. The Bush administration wants to refashion the transatlantic alliance, and GM could serve as a useful wedge. The European countries most prominent in the “coalition of the willing” in the war on Iraq — Britain and Spain — are most sympathetic to the American position on GM. The French and Germans are considerably more cautious. The GM issue separates the “old Europe” that views U.S. unilateralism with skepticism from the “new Europe” that has calculated that following Washington rather than Brussels brings more short-term benefits.

While unified on such issues as expanding its membership, the E.U. is divided on whether to establish a counterforce to U.S. unilateralism — backed by a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force — or to be satisfied as a junior partner in a U.S.-led imperial condominium. Washington is not waiting for Europe to make up its mind. Instead it’s doing what it can to accentuate cleavages within the E.U. and preemptively undercut the potential European counterforce. Agriculture, because the E.U. has such a large export advantage over the United States, is a key battleground on which this preemptive war will be fought.

Washington calculates that a three-pronged strategy of GM, trade liberalization and a declining dollar can boost U.S. exports and erode Europe’s agricultural advantage. Meanwhile, as debate over agriculture continues to hobble the latest Doha round of trade negotiations, the United States is pushing ahead with the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement to create the largest free trade area in the world. Dominated by the United States, the FTAA will create a sufficient battering ram to break down European qualms about unregulated biotechnology and unmitigated free trade. The key to this strategy is Brazil, which hasn’t yet fully signed on to either the FTAA or the U.S. policy on GM. The WTO challenge is meant to send a clear message to Brazilian president Lula and all others who might be drawn to “old Europe”: Get behind the United States, or else.

The Bush administration wants a regime change in the European Union and, as in Iraq, is impatient with diplomacy. The E.U. certainly needs to work harder at revising its common agricultural policy and reduce its huge level of farm subsidies. By playing the alpha male, however, the Bush administration will not change the preferences of European consumers, the policies of European governments, or the parameters of the transatlantic relationship. If we sow the wind, we shall reap the storm.

TomPaine, June 3, 2003

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