The British government has finally made it to the summer break and a release from the political purgatory it has been enduring over the past few months. But a resurgent America?the single biggest cause of Blair’s troubles?will still be there in September. And in the meantime, although America and Europe are no longer shouting at each other, their multiple disputes continue to spill out into security issues (see Misha Glenny on the battle in the Balkans), international trade and much else.
The World Trade Organisation is one of the only international bodies which can still constrain the foreign, and even domestic, policy of the US. In its current mood, America is unlikely to have a high tolerance threshold for such constraint. This does not bode well for the WTO meeting in September which is meant to be taking big, bold decisions to make globalisation work better for poor countries. Since most of those decisions require rich countries to cut subsidies and open markets, very little is likely to happen. As Kevin Watkins of Oxfam explains, you do not have to look beyond the standard theory of interest group politics to understand why. Diffuse public interests-in this case rich-country consumers and taxpayers plus developing?country farmers and workers?stand to make small individual gains but face high costs in organising to achieve them. By contrast, small numbers of producers?US cotton farmers or sugar farmers in Britain and France?stand to lose a great deal from subsidy cuts and are well placed to defend their interests. This is an old bugbear of democratic politics. But I have never understood why governments, who would now be strongly backed by NGOs like Oxfam, do not do more to assert a wider public interest against the subsidy lobbies.
I suppose one reason is that these trade adjustments fall particularly hard on some of the poorest groups in rich countries, producing a special dilemma for pro-free trade centre-left governments. Such governments and global justice NGOs can stand accused of preferring the developing world’s poor to their own. But the truth is that most subsidies are gobbled up by better-off producers. In any case, in rich welfare states, we can afford to cushion our citizens from the pain of industrial change.
As British politics gets more fractious and interesting, some of you have asked for more of it in Prospect. In this issue we have Robert Hazell on law…