Handbooks of Research on International Political Economy series
Edited by David Deese
Chapter 18: “Using ideas strategically”: non-state actors and the politics of trade
A new witticism about the relationship between the World Trade Organization (WTO) and so-called “civil society” has emerged in trade circles in recent years. Accordingly, some trade insiders half-humorously, half-nostalgically declare that they miss the protesters of the early 2000s at WTO headquarters in Geneva. Some jokingly reminisce about pushing through hordes of demonstrators in order to attend WTO Ministerial Conferences. The more seriously expressed view that civil society actors have found a new liking for the WTO, because nothing happens at the WTO anymore, has equally gained traction among trade experts. The assessments build on the assumption that corporate and non-corporate non-state groups constitute two distinct and essentially different sets of trade political actors and that the latter’s relationship with trade institutions is necessarily confrontational. The protests around the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle in 1999 have become a powerful piece of collective memory that helps to cement this view. The 1999 events sparked a debate on the merits and challenges for a more inclusive trade politics under the post-sovereign conditions resulting from growing governance complexity in the globalization process. Commentators on one side of the spectrum of opinions identified lacking knowledge about international institutions and/or lacking appreciation of the benefits of corporate-driven globalization as the root causes of what they saw as non-corporate non-state actors’ misguided criticism of global trade.
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