Globalizing decency: responsible engagement in an era of economic integration.

Author:Forcese, Craig

    A fable penned by satirist Ambrose Bierce describes Moral Principle and Material Interest meeting on a bridge.(1) Traveling in separate directions and unable to pass owing to the width of the bridge, Moral Principle and Material Interest are in conflict. Generously, Moral Principle offers to resolve the situation by lying flat and letting Material Interest walk over it. Not content with this solution, Material Interest insists that Moral Principle leave the bridge entirely and throw itself into the river.

    A simple yarn, Bierce's tale portrays the classic and familiar contradiction between profit and principle, a conflict the old cynic tells us is resolved at the expense of principle. Of course, Bierce lived in a different time, in the era before the rise of complicated free trade agreements. If Bierce were alive today, his fable would go something like this: Material Interest and its junior partner, Moral Principle, are on a team negotiating a free trade agreement with a country ruled by a repressive government. The advantages of the agreement to Material Interest are clear, but Moral Principle is concerned that the pact will exacerbate human rights abuses and the exploitation of workers in the other country. Cognizant that Moral Principle--and Material Interest's sworn enemy, Protectionist Material Interest--have a significant number of votes in Congress, Material Interest takes Moral Principle into the back room and explains that pursuing the course of action recommended by Material Interest will, by its very nature, satisfy the quibbles of Moral Principle. After all, the rich market countries in today's world are also the long-standing democratic nations. Trade, explains the patient Material Interest, will provide a positive catalyst for change in the repressive country. Now of the same mind, Material Interest and Moral Principle return to the negotiating room hand-in-hand and approve the agreement.

    Notably, Material Interest's conception of economic integration as social progress by other means has an impressive pedigree. In the post-War era, trade and economic integration have been justified, not simply as a method for maximizing prosperity, but ultimately as a means of serving laudable political ends. For example, the linchpin of the modern trade regime, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, was the brainchild of policy makers persuaded that the prolonged Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War were, in part, the product of beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies.(2) These policies were in turn the result of an anarchic international trade law regime.(3) Similarly, the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor of the European Economic Community, and now the European Union, was explicitly an effort to internationalize control over those smokestack industries most closely associated with armament production.(4)

    In more contemporary foreign policy circles, the position advocated by Material Interest is often called "constructive engagement." More political ideology than economic theory, one variant of constructive engagement posits that trade with, and investment in, repressive countries will promote political liberalization and greater respect for human rights by exposing populations to liberal, human rights-supporting values. The theory, by marrying material interest and moral principle, is immensely appealing, creating a natural constituency amongst both the most myopic profit-seeking companies and the most conscientious, human rights-sensitive policy makers.

    That said, there remains a very vigorous dissenting view on the moral advantages of economic engagement. Though difficult to isolate with any certainty, the shared vision of the loose amalgam of globalization opponents, labor unions and non-governmental groups protesting in the streets of Seattle, Prague, Washington, Quebec City and elsewhere, is that economic integration undermines national sovereignty, entrenches social disadvantage between social classes and between North and South, debases national labor and environmental standards, and sometimes props up repressive regimes. If true, the natural consequence of such liberalized trade and investment will be continued class and North/South exploitation, some form of political backlash and a measure of political instability.

    Clearly, assessing the merits of these two contrasting visions--economic engagement as panacea versus economic engagement as villain--is an empirical exercise. Yet, the empirical evidence, such as it is, is neither entirely dismissive nor completely supportive of either position, at least when examined with an eye to human rights. Instead, these data tend to support a nuanced approach to constructive engagement, one that might be termed "responsible engagement." In particular, engagement is appropriate so long as it does not induce the very human rights ills it is said to cure. Where constructive engagement via economic integration augments the staying power of a human rights-abusing regime, or prompts it to engage in additional human rights abuses, the net impact of that integration may not be positive. In these circumstances, the appropriate policy response will be economic disengagement. Accordingly, under a responsible engagement model, there remains an important role for economic sanctions, both as a means of affecting the behavior of nation-states and to stave off the possibility that citizens of one country are contributing to the persistence of a repressive regime in another nation.

    Yet, while the objectives of "responsible engagement" are simple to articulate, achieving these goals presents a host of difficulties. Economic sanctions often are, after all, a blunt mechanism. Poorly tempered, these sanctions run the risk, not of penalizing elite decision-makers or centers of strategic power, but of devastating an already much-abused populace. Recent rethinking of sanctions leveled against Iraq since the Gulf War has led to new discussions at the U.N. and elsewhere about "smart sanctions": limited and carefully tailored measures applying leverage in those areas where leverage is most important, particularly against political elites. Yet, rendering these "smart sanctions" effective raises substantial legal, economic and political questions. Not least among these problems: the legal apparatus governing economic integration is, on the whole, built without an eye to a responsible engagement policy. Developing a real policy of "responsible engagement", therefore, demands a rethinking of the way international law governs international economic relations.

    The Article that follows explores these assertions. Part II examines the economic and political merits of constructive engagement, on the one hand, and economic sanctions on the other. It highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, focusing on apartheid-era South Africa as a case study. Part III proposes a halfway approach to promoting human rights-sensitive development through economic relations: responsible engagement. It then examines the legal context in which economic relations operate and points to international legal impediments to a sophisticated system of responsible engagement. The Article concludes that a full-fledged strategy of responsible engagement obliges reconsideration and clarification of several facets of the World Trade Organization.


    1. Constructive Engagement as a Tool of Political Liberalization

      Like many terms expressing a highly politicized concept, "constructive engagement" has a mutable and sometimes very amorphous meaning. The expression seems to have originated in the mid-1970s to describe U.S. policy towards apartheid-era South Africa. In that context, the concept comprised, on the one hand, a rejection of trade and economic sanctions and, on the other, a continued diplomatic relationship with Pretoria aimed at resolving the issues of Rhodesia, Namibia and apartheid.(5)

      Notwithstanding its region-specific origin, the term is now regularly invoked in popular discussions surrounding current U.S. relations with contemporary repressive governments. Asked in 1997 what "constructive engagement" meant in the context of the United States' China foreign policy, then-Secretary of State Albright spoke rather obliquely of "a relationship with [the Chinese] where they feel a part of the responsibility for the international community."(6) From other sources, it is clear that for the State Department and other foreign ministries, "constructive engagement" describes a diplomatic relationship involving dialogue rather than isolation.(7) Further, for governments and businesses, "constructive engagement" is more than a species of diplomatic intercourse. Instead, it is often taken to mean accelerated economic integration.(8)

      For at least some of its proponents, the justification for the latter, economic element of "constructive engagement" reflects a variant of "modernization" or "trickle-down" development theory. Trade with, and investment in, repressive countries, it is urged, will promote political liberalization and greater respect for human rights by exposing populations to liberal, human rights-supporting values and fostering the economic growth viewed as a pre-requisite to democratization. Thus, with respect to China, business leaders have asserted, "the web of contacts between Chinese citizens and U.S. investors that develops in the course of business relationships promotes the transfer of liberal democratic values from this side of the Pacific to the East."(9) Contact with transnational businesses is also viewed as "promot[ing] greater integration of the host country in the international community, thereby enlarging its exposure to the shared values of civilized nations."(10) Companies, it is urged,

      can serve U.S. strategic, political, and economic interests by their

      enormous contributions to the development of...

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