Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Follow LeftTurn:

Special Offer from PM Press

Now more than ever there is a vital need for radical ideas. In the four years since its founding - and on a mere shoestring - PM Press has risen to the formidable challenge of publishing and distributing knowledge and entertainment for the struggles ahead. With over 200 releases to date, they have published an impressive and stimulating array of literature, art, music, politics, and culture.

PM Press is offering readers of Left Turn a 10% discount on every purchase. In addition, they'll donate 10% of each purchase back to Left Turn to support the crucial voices of independent journalism. Simply enter the coupon code: Left Turn when shopping online or mention it when ordering by phone or email.

Click here for their online catalog.

“Step Up the Pressure” An Interview with Walden Bello

Dan Beeton
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004
    Walden Bello is a leading critic of corporate globalization, an intellectual, human rights, peace, and global justice activist, environmentalist, and journalist. Over the past three decades he has played a key role in the movement to restore democracy in his native Philippines in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, in exposing the role of the IMF and World Bank in creating policies that hinder development and contribute to poverty, and in opposing US military bases in the Philippines, Korea, and Japan.

    Bello was very active in the WTO protests in Seattle, speaking at several teach-ins and was later beaten by the police. Since September 11, 2001, he has been a prominent figure in the global antiwar movement, opposing US occupation of Iraq, the Philippines, and other nations and calling instead for policies that would tackle the root causes of terrorism: poverty, inequality, injustice and oppression.

    He has authored many books, including Dark Victory: The United States and Global Poverty (1999), and is co-founder and director of Focus on the Global South, an organization that works to build grassroots capacity to advocate on globalization issues like development and capital flows. Bello was the 2003 recipient of the Right Livelihood Award – sometimes called the “alternative Nobel Peace Prize.” He lives and works in the Philippines. Dan Beeton recently spoke with him about the state of the global justice and antiwar movements – what the movements have accomplished, and what comes next – from the US to Southeast Asia.

Dan Beeton: Some, both outside and within the global justice movement, claim that the movement is now dead – that it has passed on to something else. Do you agree with this, or how would you characterize the current state of the movement?

Walden Bello: Well, I find it hard to understand the viewpoint that it’s dead. After all, it just registered two victories. One was in Cancun where the WTO ministerial collapsed. Then the other was in Miami where the US position for a Free Trade Area of the Americas did not get off the ground. At the moment, I think there are preparations being made for civil society to actively intervene to prevent any sort of move to get the WTO going again in negotiations in Geneva in July, and people are preparing to confront the WTO if it has its ministerial – the sixth – in Hong Kong next year. So, I think what you have is a movement that has been able to combine and articulate its tactics on the street with its lobbying tactics to become a major block to efforts to continue to push on with globalization and liberalization. So that would be my take on that question.

DB: As you said, the new round of WTO negotiations has become bogged down, due in large part to opposition from Southern countries to issues like US corporate welfare for agribusiness giants. Do you think the WTO can be transformed into an institution that promotes more equitable distribution of resources, or will it always be a tool of multinational corporations?

WB: I think that structurally speaking, in terms of its rules and its decision-making structure, the World Trade Organization is structurally biased towards the domination of transnational corporations. At the most, what one can hope for within the WTO is to act defensively so that one can cut one’s losses, and to prevent the WTO from expanding into new areas – non-trade areas like investment, competition policy, government procurement, and “trade facilitation,” as they call it. So, the best that we can do, and certainly the way we operate, as Focus on the Global South, is we look at our strategy in the WTO as a spoiling game, which is to try to use the mechanisms of the WTO to grind it to a halt in terms of the project of globalization and liberalization.

In terms of institutions that would truly promote the interests of developing countries, and more importantly, people of the global South, we would need to go out of the WTO and create arrangements, if not institutions, that would in fact institutionalize the drive for global justice and equality. That’s my sense – this is not a reformable institution, but we need to work in it in order to get the machine to break down.

DB: What do you envision these alternative mechanisms or institutions would look like?

WB: Well, my sense is in terms of the principles of the alternatives, I think there is more and more consensus now than we sometimes imagine. Certainly the principles of trade should be subordinated to sustainable development – that’s one thing. A second is that economic arrangements should have as a principle objective the promotion of equity both within and across countries. Third, that the market needs to be regulated, and that regulation should both come from government as well as civil society. Fourth, that we really need to move from the kind of uncontrolled growth, that at this point mainly serves transnational corporations, to ecologically sustainable growth, which means that very central to this is not only sensitivity to ecology, but also the importance of equity in income and asset redistribution.

It would also be very important to have international and regional kinds of rules and associations that facilitate and open up the space for individual countries to put together strategies – economic strategies and strategies of development – that allow them to achieve justice and equity, and in the case of the South especially, a large degree of economic sovereignty.

Also, I think it’s accepted now, more fully, that we really need to have more decentralized production structures, and the principle of subsidiarity should be one of the organizing principles of economic life. In terms of the global order, I have always been of the view that the important thing globally is to create space rather than to create new centralized structures to replace the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. What we really need is what we’ve called a more fluid, pluralistic system of global economic governance where you have medium-sized institutions that check one another and thereby create the space for countries to be able to follow sustainable development roots that they put together.

So that’s my sense: what we need at the global level is less of this centralized monolith that cramps the ability of developing countries to follow strategies of their choice and prescribes a “one-size-fits-all” model – whether it’s like the discredited neoliberal free market model that was imposed through structural adjustment on over 90 developing countries and post-socialist economies.

DB: So you mentioned earlier that recently the global justice movement had two major victories against the WTO negotiations in Cancun and the negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Miami. Looking back over a longer period of time, what do you consider to be other major accomplishments of the global justice movement?

WB: Well, I think that certainly the growth in consciousness about the limitations of the neoliberal model – the fight at the level of ideology against neoliberalism, which was riding very high in the mid-1990s. So basically I think here, both the global justice movement and developing countries were able to forge a united front in a broad sense to expose the limitations, and in fact, the negative impact on people’s welfare, of the neoliberal free market model.

I think that there were a number of high points of this. I would say that very important was the Asian financial crisis of 1997. I think civil society was able to take the lessons from that and basically propose alternative architectures of finance. Of course, none of these were put into effect. What civil society did was to de-legitimize the current financial structures.

I think the exposé that was made of the structural adjustment and stabilization programs of the IMF and the World Bank – that was another victory. Of course, you know, Seattle was very important in terms of…I mean that was really key, and I think what Seattle underlined was the vulnerability of the globalist project – the essential weakness of institutions like the World Trade Organization – and showed that there was really massive dissatisfaction with this model, both in the North and the South. So, I would say those are the high points that I would look to over the last decade, since 1995.

DB: You mentioned the financial crisis in Southeast Asia. Do you think that has had a really lasting impact on popular feelings about the Washington consensus and capitalism in general?

WB: Well, I think what has happened is that this capital account liberalization and speculative capital and its rights that it was demanding to freely flow from one border to another – across borders – I think the Asian financial crisis really revealed to people how volatile and how exposed to crashes their economies would be if they, in fact, did not impose strong capital controls. Unfortunately, of course, that realization has not yet translated itself into effective international financial architecture that would really limit and create restraints on global capital flows.

In Asia, I think the Asian financial crisis meant the end of the “Asian miracle” and I think there was a very strong waking up of people that indeed high-speed growth and high-speed capitalism had feet of clay. So, I would say that right now there’s much more skepticism about the ability of global capital to be able to deliver on promises of prosperity.

DB: How would you characterize the current resistance to imperialism and to corporate globalization in Southeast Asia, generally?

WB: I think that Southeast Asia is filled with many different movements, and I think here you, for instance, have secular movements – non-governmental organizations – that are in the forefront of struggles against neoliberal outcomes and neoliberal projects, including the kind of IMF stabilization programs that are being imposed at this point. So civil society is mobilized at this point in throughout Southeast Asia. But I think we also should realize that the Islamic movement is one of the stronger and more popular movements and it is increasingly confronting the United States – at the level of culture, at the level of the military presence in the region, and in denunciation of the sort of capitalism that the United States represents.

So here I wouldn’t go as far as to say that there’s now a unified resistance movement, or that the level of organization of this varied movement is quite high. In fact, I think the situation of this movement is that they’re just beginning to grow.

DB: In the US, it seems that a great deal of focus in evaluating the global justice and the antiwar movements has been on the logistical side, while there seems to be a lack of underlying analysis of how to most effectively confront capitalism and state power. How do you think these diverse global movements can overcome this shortcoming?

WB: Well I think, as I said, we confront the different manifestations of the crisis clearly. For instance, on the environmental front, on climate change. You confront the way the power of the empire shows itself in military means by building up an antiwar movement, especially around Iraq. There is the ongoing struggles against the WTO and the IMF, so my sense is that you may not have one centralized movement, but you have the articulation of different networks focused on fighting different key institutions and projects of US-led global capitalism at this point in time.

Yes, of course we could do more in terms of articulating a vision, but as I said, I think we’re – in terms of the principles that would go to creating concrete programs for each country – those are there at this point. I would say that it would be very important to coordinate and articulate these different movements at this point in time, but not to expect that a sort of heavily centralized and coordinated movement is going to result, and in fact it’s probably best if it does not get to be that way.

DB: A great deal of energy that had previously been channeled into the antiwar movement in the US, and, for that matter, the global justice movement against global capital – this energy now seems to have been diverted into electoral politics. What impact do you think the possible election outcomes will have on the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, and resistance to the occupations?

WB: Well, I think that the US antiwar movement has a special responsibility to the world, and to the suffering peoples – especially in the Middle East – at this point. I think that the educational pressure – the demonstrations that characterized the last decade of the Vietnam War – the challenges to be able to mount those demonstrations so that whoever is in the White House will have to listen to the four words that the antiwar movement should be pushing at this point, which is the unconditional withdrawal of troops from Iraq. So it seems like there just has to be the grit and the constant determination to pile bodies onto the streets everyday that the old antiwar movement showed.

I personally am quite disappointed that the antiwar movement in the United States has not been able to do this. Because unless that’s there, the Democrats are going to behave just like the Republicans, and certainly Kerry would be speaking differently if he were confronted with antiwar activists in every rally that he made that would ask him and push him to take a position different from Bush on Iraq. From what I’ve read, he’s been taking pretty much similar positions in that his main difference with Bush is to say that he can manage the process better than Bush.

So, I would say that what will really make the difference here are two factors: one, what happens on the ground in Iraq, and there it’s becoming more and more impossible for the United States to stay without a sort of bitter war of attrition – body bags – that is creating a great deal of disillusionment back home. But that’s only part of the equation. The other part of the equation is the work of the antiwar movement within the home front itself. So, the Iraqis are doing their part, and I think it’s important for both the US and the international movement to step up the pressure at this point in time.

DB: In the US at least, the Philippines is the “forgotten front” in the so-called war on terror. Do you think that a Kerry Administration would implement any serious changes to the occupation of the Philippines?

WB: Well, I think they would probably continue to have the sort of low-level kind of troop presence and troop rotation here that engages in training programs together with Philippine military personnel. So I don’t see that ending. I would say that unless there is pressure, both in the Philippines and in the US, to pull back the Special Forces detachments and other military detachments that circulate in the Philippines, that they will continue to be here. I think the sort of war against terror – the regional anti-terrorist centers, the sort of traffic in security, FBI, CIA personnel linking up with police forces in the region – that is, in fact, going to continue.

And I would say that among the best, probably, among the police forces that are heavily linked in this informal structure of police cooperation, is the Philippines’. I would say here too that the level of opposition to the American presence [from] the peace movement in the Philippines still also has a long way to go in terms of making this a very, very strong and visible issue – the US presence in the Philippines.

DB: Just one last question, since this is going to be an issue that we put out right before the Republican National Convention and the protests, do you have any thoughts about the strategic importance of those protests, and maybe what you’d like to see there?

WB: Well, I think it’s very important to have a show of force of the antiwar movement in both areas. I think Boston, for the Democrats, and [New York] for the Republicans. I think the Chicago protests during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 were a very great – I wouldn’t say turning point, but certainly, certainly they created a public climate that eventually gave the forces for withdrawal the upper hand and led to the Paris Peace Accords. So, if you ask me, I think that we need to throw everything we have to the protests in both [New York] and Boston, and I think that massive civil disobedience should probably be the order of the day. And to really underline to Bush as well as to Kerry that only one thing is acceptable, and that is unconditional withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

On that, I would just like to mention that I suspect that part of the reason that the antiwar movement is not as vigorous as it was is that there is a sense of some distance from the resistance forces in Iraq – that there is a sense of, you know, “Do we know these people? Who are they?” There’s the whole thing about suicide bombers, this whole thing about the suicide bomber being the “F-16 of the Palestinians.” So there is an inability on the part of the antiwar movement to try to understand that resistance and to support the resistance platform of unconditional withdrawal.

The only thing I can say here is that I don’t think that the resistance and the forces seeking to get the US out of Iraq – it’s not so much for political support that they’re asking – the demand they’re putting forward is something that everybody can unite on, which is basically that the occupation is ended and that it is indigenous forces in Iraq or Afghanistan that forge a national consensus for a government.

So, I would say that this has always been a problem with Western peace movements. They want to have ideal national liberation movements, but there’s no such thing. All national liberations have had their ugly face, and we just have to live with that because the sort of war that has been foisted on them by the United States I think has been a very, very sort of ugly war that has killed so many civilians, and if some of the same methods are used against the United States and the allies of the United States, then I think while we certainly condemn such methods, we can nevertheless understand where they’re coming from.

So, I would say that even the peace movement should stop trying to place the resistance in Iraq, say, or in Afghanistan – trying to, how do I put it – imposing its standards on national liberation movements. I think they should just take them as they are and do what it’s supposed to do, which is to get the troops out, and then let the people there determine where things should go.

Dan Beeton is a global justice and antiwar activist based in DC.