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A Virtual Meeting of Minds

Author: Jagdish N. Bhagwati
September 20, 2001
Financial Times


We need to think seriously about how international meetings should be handled. The urgency of this task is underlined by what happened to this year's World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings: first, they were reduced to two from seven days because of threats posed by violent anti-globalisation protests; then they were cancelled as a result of further threats by possible terrorist attacks.

We are in a different and ingenious kind of conflict - one in which anti-globalisation protesters target the international agencies and superstructure that were the postwar creation and pride of far-sighted liberals (I mean liberals in the American sense). They strike where you most expect them: at the meetings of these agencies, the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, and even Davos and the International Chamber of Commerce gatherings.

The world's media gather at these - often dull - events only to be enthralled by the theatrics and the fury unleashed in the streets outside the official meetings. The images of policemen armed with batons and bullets combating unarmed youths quickly undermines support for both the agencies and globalisation.

The agencies will never win this battle unless they are prepared to introduce fundamental changes in the way they carry out their business. These changes are essential to assert the values of adynamic, democratic society and open-world economy that these groups pretend to support but in fact undermine, using our traditions of freedom of speech and protest.

First, these gatherings must be confined to occasions when there is a truly important agenda that requires a large meeting in one place. The cancelled Bank/Fund meetings do not meet that test: nothing of great importance was due to be discussed.

In fact, the elimination of such purposeless events would release significant resources - both from these institutions and from the host country, which must provide the security. The funds released could then be used to further the professed aims of the organisations, such as building more schools and hospitals in the poor countries.

Second, when an assembly is considered essential, anti-globalisation groups must be allowed to hold alternative meetings but at a reasonable distance – 50 miles, say - from the site of the meeting. At the last Davos meeting, for example, protesters held a anti-Davos meeting simultaneously in Brazil. But the oceans need not divide the two parallel events. The great United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing did precisely this and it advanced the agendas of the more activist women effectively. It would then be up to the media to cover both meetings.

Third, street demonstrations must not be ruled out but they have to be regulated so that they do not degenerate into violence. Such groups can democratically select the leaders and rank and file who will be allowed to protest outside the headquarters of the World Bank, for example, if this institution is holding an important meeting. But no one has the right to say that freedom of speech requires that you can get up in a safe theatre and shout Fire. After Genoa, we know where that kind of freedom leads and it cannot be defended.

Fourth, when the risk of violence is high and unavoidable and a targeted international agency has a truly important task before it, there is surely a case for shifting an assembly in one place to a "virtual" meeting.

These principles apply nowhere more importantly than to the forthcoming World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar, scheduled for November 9-13. It is an exceptionally important meeting where we hope finally to launch the new multilateral trade round. Indeed, Pascal Lamy, the European Union's trade commissioner, reminded us this week of the vital nature of the meeting. But do we really need to go to Doha?

Consider the downside. Doha is in the Middle East. It has little security so guests would have to arrange their own - with all the difficulties that would entail. If the US is engaged in retaliation for the recent terrorist attacks, the entire Middle East could suddenly become volatile. The radical anti-globalisation groups are likely to be a further source of insecurity. Add to all of this the limited number of flights out of Doha, and the result is potential disaster. l

Given the risks, why not have Mike Moore, head of the WTO, launch - with the prior approval of all the various heads of government - the new round via a teleconference link on November 9? A meeting along these lines would put a stop to the increasingly violent protests that we have become accustomed to because there would be no one place in which to protest.

That would be a sufficient answer to the anti-globalisers: our business, which will achieve their agendas better than anything they propose, will go on.

The writer is a professor at Columbia University, and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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