SYNOPSIS: The arrogance of IMF protestors shows no understanding of Economic reality.
Talk about globalization. Michel Camdessus probably knew that his last speech as managing director of the International Monetary Fund might be accompanied by some protests. But he surely did not expect an American activist to follow him to Bangkok and throw a cream pie in his face.
The American represented one of the groups hoping to make April's I.M.F.-World Bank meeting in Washington a second Seattle. Sunday's pie-throwing was, of course, a publicity stunt. But the symbolism -- an American traveling to Asia to save Asians from globalization, whether they want to be saved or not -- is too apt to pass up.
Let's admit that there were some actual Thai protesters outside the lecture hall. And let's also admit that the I.M.F. is a more plausible villain than the World Trade Organization, the bizarrely demonized target of the Seattle protests. The I.M.F. is no more a world government than the W.T.O. is; but through the conditions that it imposes in return for loans the I.M.F. does, at least in times of crisis, get to dictate policies to sovereign states.
The W.T.O., by contrast, is basically a commercial court; all it does is determine when countries are violating the agreements they have already made. (Example: The U.S. can set whatever environmental standards it likes, but having agreed to the principle of non-discrimination, it cannot hold imported gasoline to a higher standard than the domestic product.)
The protesters of Seattle past and Washington future, however, don't make such fine distinctions. They are as opposed to free trade in goods as they are to speculative movements of short-term capital; they view the longer-term trends in the world economy, not just the short-term crises, with dismay. And that is why the spectacle of an American going to Thailand, of all places, to protest globalization is so remarkable. For Thailand is one of those export-led success stories that are the best advertisement for the W.T.O. and its free-trade agenda.
Now wait a second, you say. Wasn't there a terrible financial crisis recently? Yes, there was, and the I.M.F. mishandled it. But the Thai economy is recovering, and even post-crisis Thailand is a much better place than it used to be.
This may not be obvious to the Western visitor. Much of Bangkok is an urban nightmare of shanties and traffic jams; Thailand is still poorer than most Westerners can easily imagine. But that, in a way, is the point: because the developing world is still so poor, what looks to careless observers like exploitation is often far better than the alternative.
Try looking at some of the literature of the anti-globalists -- say, the lavish series of full-page ads that have been placed in this newspaper by the Turning Point Project. (Who's paying for those ads, by the way?) Again and again you see the less attractive features of the modern world contrasted with an imagined pre-globalization Arcadia of happy villagers living in harmony with nature. Then try checking some of the facts about life before the export boom. Never mind G.D.P.; we're talking basic nutrition and health. What you will discover is that life in that pre-globalization society was nasty, brutish and short; for example, in 1975 only one rural Thai in six had access to safe drinking water. Today it's four out of five.
No wonder, then, that many third-world leaders are contemptuous of their self-proclaimed Western friends who, in the words of Mexico's president, Ernesto Zedillo, are "determined to save developing countries from development."
Of course, those developing countries have their own gripes about the world trading system. Mainly these involve their desire for more, not less, international trade: they are rightly angry that rich countries that proclaim the virtues of free trade place so many obstacles in the way of their potential exports. And they also want more of a say in the decisions of the W.T.O. -- largely because they are afraid that it will give in to the demands of the Seattle types, imposing labor and environmental standards that they cannot afford.
What they don't want is affluent Westerners telling them -- strangely, at the very moment that some developing countries are finally starting to acquire a bit of real economic power -- what a terrible thing the modern world is.
Originally published in The New York Times, 2.16.00