Another World

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

In 1990, I thought that another world was not only possible, it was happening before my eyes. With hundreds of other activists, I was in Prague to attend the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA). The Berlin Wall was no more, the Cold War was receding with breathtaking rapidity, and a new age of people’s movements seemed to be dawning. It was a time for celebration for the peace and human rights activists from throughout Europe, North America, and what would soon become the former Soviet Union. When he was helping to plan the meeting in 1988, the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel fully expected the HCA to attract the full wrath of his country’s secret police and he would spend the time in jail. By 1990, the world had turned upside down, and Havel was opening the first session of the HCA as president of a newly democratic state.

The HCA had big plans. National chapters were forming in all the countries of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Peace missions from HCA were going to conflict zones in the Caucasus and the Balkans. A session in Ankara tackled head-on the looming problem of racism, xenophobia, and Eurocentrism. Local activists were connecting their own specific struggles—environmental, human rights, and so on—to the larger regional framework. And it wasn’t only Europe. In Asia, the People’s Plan for the 21st Century (PP21) gathered over 100,000 Japanese and other Asian activists in Minimata to discuss regional mechanisms in 1989. Follow-up meetings took place in Thailand (1992) and India (1993).

HCA and PP21 were ready for another world. But the world was not yet ready for another world.

The Cold War was largely over, but hot wars were not—in Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Rwanda, East Timor. The CSCE never received the funding it needed to become a viable peacekeeping and peace building mechanism, and NATO found new rationales to stay in business. A certain sourness crept into the new European democracies. And in 1995, the trade and finance community unveiled its own new world order with the founding of the World Trade Organization.

Suddenly globalization was not about activists creating transnational participatory democracy. Globalization was about sweatshops and unfair trade agreements. The Battle of Seattle in 1999 sparked a new wave of global activism. And from this spark flared the World Social Forum and its call that “another world is possible.” The first meeting, in Porto Alegre, Brazil in January 2001, had some of the same exhilaration as the 1990 HCA gathering. The people of the world were speaking with one voice and shaking the very foundations of the world economic system.

Forum at a Crossroads

The World Social Forum, now in its seventh year, recently held its first gathering in Africa, in Nairobi in January. And activists are gearing up for the first U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta at the end of June. At this critical juncture, Foreign Policy In Focus asked 10 leading global activists to assess the World Social Forum: its greatest achievements and disappointments, whether it has become too diffuse or too institutionalized, and what direction it should take in the future.

In The Forum at the Crossroads, FPIF contributor Walden Bello describes the origins, functions, and chief dilemmas of the WSF. He outlines the key successes of the Forum in establishing an open space for discussion and a model for direct democracy. But the Forum has also been caught between the articulation of general principles and a focus on a specific plan of political action.

Bello leaves us not with a conclusion but with a question. “After the disappointment that was Nairobi, many long-standing participants in the Forum are asking themselves: Is the WSF still the most appropriate vehicle for the new stage in the struggle of the global justice and peace movement?” Bello asks. “Or, having fulfilled its historic function of aggregating and linking the diverse counter-movements spawned by global capitalism, is it time for the WSF to fold up its tent and give way to new modes of global organization of resistance and transformation?”

For FPIF co-director Emira Woods, Nairobi was a first taste of the WSF, and she was energized. “One key thing that came out was the formation of the Africa Water Network,” she writes in The Best and Worst of Nairobi. “It was just an idea at the beginning of the week in Nairobi. But over the week, leadership evolved, ideas evolved, and a network was born. That’s the WSF at its best.”

But Nairobi also suffered from the indifference of the Kenyan government. “There wasn’t the type of official recognition, involvement, and support of the WSF as was the case most notably in Porto Alegre,” she observes. “The Brazilian government offered not only trains and buses but also other types of logistical, physical, and fiscal support. In the case of Nairobi, that sort of support just wasn’t there, in part because of the lack of capacity and the lack of awareness of the potential of this force. But also there wasn’t the same kind of progressive leadership in the highest levels of government in Kenya as in Brazil.”

Over the next week, we’ll be posting two new pieces a day from our team of global activists: Patrick Bond, Guacira César de Oliveira, Jamal Juma’, Rita Thapa, Adam Ma’anit, Bret Benjamin, Melanie Joseph, and Erinc Yeldan. We’ll finish with a virtual roundtable discussion in which they discuss their reactions to each other’s comments.

Adios, World Bank?

The real crisis at the World Bank has nothing to do with Paul Wolfowitz. Latin America may well be leading a stampede out of the Bank and its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund. On April 29, the leaders of Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua announced plans to withdraw from the World Bank’s arbitration court. Venezuela declared that it was paying off its World Bank debt five years early. And Brazil, Ecuador, and Argentina have retired their IMF debts as well.

In Adios, World Bank! FPIF contributor Nadia Martinez writes, that “the increasing frustration with traditional multilateral financing options has led some governments to begin thinking about alternatives to fulfill their financing needs, while at the same time breaking their dependence on capital—and influence—from the United States and Europe. At the same time that the World Bank is suffering its most damaging scandal to date, plans for an alternative regional bank are advancing quickly. Earlier this year, Venezuela and Argentina launched the new “Banco del Sur” (Bank of the South), pledging more than $1 billion to get the institution up and running in the next few months.”

Latin American countries are taking aim not just at the international financial institutions. As FPIF contributor Sarah Anderson writes, in Foreign Investors Gone Wild, there is a revolt brewing against global rules and institutions “that promote and protect foreign investment—with little regard for the costs to democracy, the environment, or the public welfare.” Anderson describes suits by Occidental Petroleum against Ecuador, CMS Gas against Argentina, and a Canadian gold mining company against the U.S. government—and the way that countries are pushing back against the companies.

“Replacing the current international investment rules with more just and equitable ones will require cooperation between North and South,” Anderson writes. “In the United States, Democratic congressional leaders are considering new approaches to trade policy but have yet to call for an end to investor-state powers. They should begin a dialogue with governments that have been hardest hit by these excessive investor protections and learn from their experiences.”

And the battle continues on the trade front as well. In Raw Deal Between Washington and Seoul, FPIF contributor Tim Shorrock puts the current free trade agreement in the larger context of U.S.-South Korean relations. “The FTA faces considerable obstacles,” writes Shorrock, “not least the skepticism of the U.S. Congress, which has passed free trade agreements over the years by ever-narrowing margins. Congressional opponents are worried about insufficient labor and environmental provisions in the pact. Free-trade opponents, both in Korea and the United States, realize that the pact is not so much between two countries as between two sets of multinational corporations. It would also deepen South Korea’s dependence on the United States at a time when it is just beginning to find its own way in East Asia.”

What about Syria?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Syria at the beginning of last month generated a firestorm of criticism. As FPIF’s Middle East editor Stephen Zunes points out in Washington Takes Aim at Syria, Pelosi is no appeaser of Syria. However, she also embraces the conclusion of that radical document, the Baker-Hamilton Commission report, that “talking with the Syrians—however distasteful their regime may be—is vital to the security of the region.” Zunes evaluates the Bush administration charges against Syria and dismisses the key charge, that Damascus is supporting the insurgency in Iraq. Indeed, it might want Washington to stay put for the time being. “A precipitous U.S. withdrawal could increase regional turmoil and negatively affect Syria,” Zunes writes. “Also, if it is bogged down in Iraq, the United States is less likely to attack Syria.”

At the same time, Washington is blocking Israel and Syria from mending fences. The two countries have come close on several occasions to setting up talks to resolve their mutual security concerns. But the Bush administration has leaned on Israel to play hard to get. Zunes explores the various reasons for Washington’s intransigence, including the most sinister one: that Washington wants Israel to attack Syria.

“The Bush administration appears quite willing to continue its divide-and-rule policies in the Middle East by preventing the resumption of talks that could end hostilities between Israel and its Arab neighbors,” Zunes writes. “It is yet another reminder that the problem with U.S. policy is not that it is too ‘pro-Israel,’ but that it is anti-peace.”

“Another world is possible,” the U.S. Social Forum proclaims. “Another U.S. is necessary.”

FPIF, May 7, 2007

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