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"Ironic Reversal"

The antiglobalization forces are trying to protect developing countries from free trade. Do these countries want protection?

11:00 PM, Nov 20, 2003 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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ONE RECENT SUNNY DAY, Martin Lemke, a 28-year-old from San Francisco, stood in front of a Gap clothing store on busy Collins Avenue in South Beach, Miami, and shed all of his clothes, save for a pair of boxer briefs. Lemke's striptease, you understand, was a political act--he's a member of the "Gapatistas," a San Francisco-based antiglobalization group--and he bared his soul, among other things, in order to protest the meeting in Miami this week of trade ministers from 34 different countries. (The "Gapatistas" normally conduct their strip-protests from the top of a 5 and 1/2 foot Redwood stump in California.)

You've got to admire the gumption of people like Martin Lemke. And you've got to wonder what motivates them to make such fools of themselves. For his part, Lemke told the Miami Herald, he strips because "The Gap is a poster child for free trade, which really means corporate trade." And, don't forget, "What we really need is trade that's free from exploitation, free from the degradation of the planet, people, and spirit."

Lemke is only one of thousands of people, perhaps tens of thousands, who traveled to Miami this week in order to protest the adoption of a Free Trade of the Americas agreement, which would create a free-trade zone stretching from the Arctic Circle to Tierra Del Fuego. But it's worth remembering that the people on whose behalf the marchers claim to be speaking--those "exploited" and "degraded" as a result of an increasingly interconnected world--have voices of their own. Which, when asked, they use to give full-throated support for globalization.

A recent poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, for example, showed that sizable majorities of respondents in the developing world thought free trade was a good thing. Ninety-five percent of Nigerians, for example, say "growing trade" and "business ties" with other countries are good for Nigeria. When Pew asked Ukrainians whether they thought free trade was a good thing, 93 percent of those surveyed said yes, it is. And when you ask the Vietnamese whether they feel free trade is good or bad for their country, a whopping 98 percent say that it's good.

What's more, the same positive attitudes applies to international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. Seventy-three percent of Guatemalans view the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank favorably. Eighty-one percent of Filipinos think those organizations are "good" for the Philippines; in the Ivory Coast, the number is 87 percent.

WHEN YOU ASK anti-globalization activists about these numbers, they grow defensive. Matti Kohonen, a member of one of Europe's foremost antiglobalization groups, Attac, says that Attac favors some aspects of globalization, too. "On trade issues," he says, "We do not say that countries should stop trading with each other, or that increased trade as such is a problem."

"I don't think anyone would argue against the ideal propounded by globalization," says Helena Kotkowska, another member of Attac. "I think the fear is that the tendency of globalization so far suggests that it will be the corporations, multinationals, and financial institutions that will profit, rather than anyone else."

Those surveyed by the Global Attitudes Project have the same fears. While overall support for free trade and other aspects of globalization was strong among those surveyed, many, for example, thought that working conditions and the availability of good-paying jobs had worsened over the last five years.

Still, you don't see many Uzbeks stripping in front of the Gap these days. So what explains the fact that the people who are angriest about globalization live in rich countries like the United States?

Jagdish Bhagwati, the Columbia economist, thinks he knows the answer. He says that over the last 50 years we've seen an "ironic reversal" in the way people around the world view global markets. When postwar lending institutions like the IMF and World Bank were first created, Bhagwati argues, they were viewed by elites in recently de-colonized countries such as India as tools of neo-imperialism. "Integration into the world economy was thought to lead to disintegration of the national economy," says Bhagwati.

But now that attitude has reversed: Those most excited about globalization tend to live in peripheral economies, and those protesting it live in central ones.

The "Gapatistas" are aware of the "ironic reversal," however dimly. They targeted the Gap store in South Beach, you see, because the neighborhood was known for its "progressive reputation."

"It's an upscale, smaller area, and it's more homey," one Gapatista said. "In areas like that, the reaction is generally sympathetic."

It's enough to make you wonder what the reaction might be in Nigeria.

Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.