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DAWN - Opinion; September 24, 2003

September 24, 2003

As Musharraf meets Bush

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


BY the time this article appears all preparations will have been made for President Musharraf’s speech at the United Nations and for his meeting with President Bush. These, without detracting from the importance of the scheduled meetings with American intellectuals and the media, are to be the highlights of the president’s visit to New York. This article will focus on the agenda for the Bush-Musharraf meeting, the backdrop against which they will be conducted and the results that can be expected.

The subjects that are likely to come up are well-known:

* The campaign against terrorism and its impact on the West’s relations with the Islamic world.

* The key Pakistani role in capturing Al Qaeda adherents, who have sought asylum in Pakistan, in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Afghanistan.

* The continuing activities of the Taliban in Afghanistan and particularly in the areas bordering on Pakistan.

* The role the foregoing as much as the continuing turbulence in Afghanistan has played in creating strains in the Pak-Afghan relationship, and of course, the Pakistani sensitivity about Indian efforts to fish in these troubled waters.

* The defence and economic components of the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US.

* The strong American concern about extremism in Pakistan.

* The American expectation that Pakistan, as a member of the Security Council, will support and vote for a US sponsored resolution on Iraq, even if other permanent members of the Security Council have reservations, that endorses the creation of a multinational peace-keeping force in Iraq under US command and which grants to the UN a role in Iraq that falls far short of what the other permanent members of the Security Council are demanding.

* The American expectation that once this resolution is adopted Pakistan will respond positively to the request already made for providing a two brigade force to the UN sanctioned multinational force and agree that these brigades be deployed in Basra and its environs on the one side and in Northern Iraq on the other.

* The impasse in Indo-Pak relations after a thaw was signalled by Prime Minister Vajpayee’s extension of a hand of friendship in April. The concern in Pakistan about the lack of progress in resolving the Kashmir problem, the continued violence in Kashmir, the intensification of Indian repression in Kashmir, the continued Indian allegations that there has been no let-up in cross-border infiltration, the Indian rejection of a Pakistani offer of a ceasefire along the LOC.

What is the backdrop against which this agenda will be discussed? Mr. Richard Haass, currently the president of the council of foreign relations, appeared on a popular TV programme (the Charlie Rose show) in America on the September 5 and was asked whether he agreed with the view that “Pakistan is the most challenging issue in the world today because it’s right (sic) ripe with terrorists and corruption and nuclear weapons. If there’s a place that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of wrong people that’s it”.

He started his reply by saying “Alas I think he’s right. When I look at the world and I look at situations that worry me, Pakistan is towards the top of my list. It’s a country with a population now greater than Russia. We’re talking about a country with a population of 145-150 million people. In which you haven’t been able to work out a stable democracy to say the least. You’ve had basically a series of coups and military governance. You’ve got significant number of nuclear weapons.

“You’ve got a running low-level war with its neighbour, India. You have a degree of involvement with terrorism. You’ve got an intelligence service that historically has been slightly out of control. They’re once again messing around in Afghanistan. You’ve got schools that (sic) these religious schools Madressahs that are in many ways turning out young men who are trained for nothing except extremist causes in many cases. When you look at this country of 145-150 million people, you’ve got every right to be concerned. If Pakistan ever becomes a failed state, that is a strategic nightmare. ....

“When I look at American foreign policy and I look out at what really matters I would say one of the biggest priorities, if not the biggest priority, for American foreign policy in addition to these immediate crisis ought to be to help influence the trajectory of societies like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, but Pakistan above all. We ought to be putting as we are beginning to send a large amount of aid in there, economic assistance but on a conditional basis.

“So we will give you economic aid if you, you know, introduce the rule of law, get rid of corruption. We will start reform, help you reform your schools to give you a decent curriculum. We’ve got to work with their police and their law enforcement, their intelligence services to clean up..... If we don’t, what happened on 9/11 will simply be the dress rehearsal for the future.”

One would like to dismiss the foregoing as the ranting and raving of an irresponsible journalist with a jaundiced view of Pakistan but the fact is that Mr. Haass, as the director — until recently — of policy planning in the state department was a senior policymaker in this administration and was used time and again to articulate American policy towards South Asia.

His own expertise and that of the “think tank” he heads will provide substantial inputs to the administration’s South Asia policy. He has to be taken seriously and all the more so when one acknowledges that this sort of assessment is found repeated again and again as one scans not only the American but the general run of the western media.

On the Afghanistan issue one must also take note of frequent American and western media reports that the Taliban are operating freely in Pakistan and therefore give credence to an Indian report that Ambassador Nancy Powell during her visit to India told Indian interlocutors of her surprise that the authorities could not track the Taliban that the American reporters found and talked to in Pakistan. In other words Pakistan may be regarded as part of the solution to the problem of terrorism but it is also part of the problem.

The highest American priority however is the elimination of the Al Qaeda and its tentacles in South Asia. The support for President Musharraf ensures a measure of support for this goal. The Americans can hope, but not make it a condition, that he will also, given his own bent of mind, promote to the extent that it does not interfere with his other goals, the return of moderation and tolerance to Pakistan’s polity.

In Pakistan, according to opinion polls conducted by an American organization in April-May this year, immediately after the attack on Iraq, anti-American sentiment was higher than in any of the other major Muslim country. More than 70 per cent of the people in Pakistan joined their Indonesian and Nigerian counterparts in fearing that their country was likely to be attacked by the United States.

The aid package announced after President Musharraf’s visit to the United States in June’03, $3 billion in development and security assistance over five years in annual instalments of $600 million was disparagingly compared to the huge packages that were reportedly offered to Turkey — and turned down by the Turkish parliament — to secure its cooperation in the war against Iraq. Even this package is subject to annual approval by the Congress and could therefore be stopped on one pretext or the other just as the earlier package negotiated by the Benazir Bhutto government was stopped by the invoking of the Pressler Amendment. In other words, at the public level, dislike is compounded by distrust.

In policy making circles in Pakistan there is recognition that becoming a key ally in the battle against terrorism transformed Pakistan’s international status from a pariah state to one that was being assiduously courted. There is concern however that American policy in Afghanistan ignored Pakistan’s concerns and its eminently sensible advice about the sort of political structure that needed to be created thus compounding Pakistan’s problems with its own Pushtun population.

Adding insult to injury, the US as part of its focus on India as the “strategic ally”, is giving it a role in Afghanistan that goes beyond its capability and which it is using essentially to discomfit Pakistan and to create rifts between Pakistan and the Karzai government.

American pressure has persuaded India to make gestures that lowered the temperature and tension in South Asia and obviated the prospect of another confrontation of the December ‘01 variety. The US is not persuading the Indians to recognize the significance of the steps that Pakistan has taken to meet Indian concerns and to enter into unconditional talks with the Pakistanis.

Despite this, India has been allowed to buy advanced radar systems from Israel further accentuating the disparity in conventional arms capability between India and Pakistan. Pakistan can no longer expect American “even-handedness” between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan’s economy however remains fragile. The maintaining of good ties with the United States was therefore a necessity even if public sentiment opposed it and even if no common interests had been identified to underpin such a relationship. This was as much the national interest as it was the interest of the “ruling establishment”

This mixture of pessimistic assessments and pragmatic considerations will be at the back of the minds of the two leaders when they meet in New York. Given the relatively short time that they will have at their disposal much will remain unsaid.

To be concluded

The writer is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan.

The making of our foreign policy

By Touqir Hussain


THE making of a country’s foreign policy mirrors its national agenda, priorities, social attitudes and political structure. A look into the making of Pakistan’s foreign policy can therefore give us a useful insight into our external relations.

For much of our history, the foreign policy has been heavily influenced, if not dominated, by a bureaucratic (civil- military) complex of power which was beyond challenge. It reflected the assumptions of our ruling elite and special interest groups, specially feudal aristocracy, big business and the military establishment that ruled through the bureaucracy in the name of politics or otherwise.

The balance of power between the civil and military bureaucracy kept changing but it was they who shaped the foreign policy agenda as well as provided a leadership in its implementation. Our conventional diplomacy functioned well in the stable international environment and a period of relative internal calm and economic certainty but the world has changed and so have we.

The subject of Pakistan’s foreign policy is neither susceptible to nor worthy of a quick or facile analysis. For the sake of coherence, unity of theme and purpose, and relevance to current issues,it might be helpful to focus on the post-cold war period, specially the decade of the 1990s. This has been a very confused and turbulent period in our nation’s diplomacy where we struggled to battle on many fronts.

I have left Musharraf years unjudged as they are a watershed between our troubled years and a future whose shape is unclear yet though it promises some good. It is difficult to evaluate history in evolution, because the perspective is too close for objectivity.

Let me begin by stating the obvious. Pakistan’s geo-political importance has significantly diminished following the end of the cold war. Some of this loss was new and dramatic, resulting from the global changes, while much was a pre-existing reality conceded by Pakistan only belatedly under pressure of contrary evidence. Behind the “adversity” of our troubled times lay not only the magnitude of challenges we faced but also policies that were less than adequate, specially when these historical changes first made a claim on Pakistan’s attention.

If we go back in history, it is obvious that we have lived with colossal concerns about our security that have absorbed most of our energies and resources. Internally, we have been virtually dissipated by a struggle to gain political and economic stability. We have thus been combating on two fronts that have been at the heart of our struggle for nation-building. In the ’90s, however, we either began losing this fight or were in retreat as our economy was suddenly left in the lurch with the withdrawal of western aid, while our leadership did not quite measure up to the challenge.

Earlier, for decades we had profited from the politics of global dimensions and our alliance with the West that supported our economy as well as security, but these ties became very thin with the global changes at the beginning of ‘90s that hit us in more ways than one. The effect was devastating for a country where through much of its history foreign and domestic policies had merged indistinguishably. All this happened against the background of long-term consequences that were just beginning to emerge from the years of Afghan jihad that undermined our society in ways that are now all too painfully familiar to us and to the world at large.

Our internal stability was strained and, in many cases, undermined by religious extremism, ethnic conflicts and poor governance. In such a fragile national environment, it was not easy to pursue a forward foreign policy, specially on Kashmir and Afghanistan, that ignored this reality and tried to transcend the resulting gap between our objectives and capability.

The dying moments of the cold war also coincided with the revival of democracy in Pakistan and confronted us with another set of problems. The country’s foreign policy suddenly came to be influenced by domestic politics, held hostage to narrow political interests, domestic power play and personal agenda outweighing long-term strategic and economic interests. Perfunctory posturings and public relations manoeuvres replaced informed policy recommendations, if ever there were any. Consensus of the civil-military bureaucracy broke down.

Growing internal weaknesses and potential for domestic as well as regional instability affected Pakistan’s international standing. Had Pakistan lost all its geopolitical importance? Yes and No. The global politics was no doubt changing and casting a shadow over Pakistan’s value. But even with the vestigial value Pakistan had it could not cash in on it because of its growing internal weaknesses and potential for domestic and regional instability.

An abandoned or dejected Pakistan was left by the West to fend for itself, and it did so in a manner it thought best — with a headstrong unreasoning self-determination. This attitude was engendered by a confluence of mutually supportive factors—the armed forces’ self-confidence and assertiveness, empty posturing of weak and vulnerable political leadership, and excitable public opinion susceptible to emotions of the moment.

The Foreign Office made its own contribution. Like the rest of the civil bureaucracy it too was sucked into the policy vacuum. It was a pity because it did have, and continues to have, outstanding professionals. The Foreign Office became a faint voice in a political landscape crowded by personalities running autonomous and maverick foreign policy establishments sanctioned or unrestrained by politically weak governments. Fractured institutions and strong personalities continued to scamper around and speak directly to the leadership in different voices. This led to no or confused policy.

In these disordered times, in which the civilian bureaucracy suffered particularly, the only institutions that remained immune from erosion were those of the armed forces. And they took full advantage of this policy and power vacuum. At least they presented themselves to the public as respectful of the country’s security concerns and ideological sensibilities. How much real influence the military establishment exerted on the formulation of the foreign policy, specially on issues of core national interests, is hard to say. Long years of Ziaul Haq’s rule did raise armed forces’ political role which they continued to play in varying degrees in proportion to the need and the opportunity of the moment.

But in public perception it was only the Foreign Office which appeared to be running the policy and was held solely responsible for its failures. Other players withdrew into the background, and remained beyond the purview of criticism, to much less of scrutiny or accountability. The government also found a convenient scapegoat in the Foreign Office which did not help its own cause by its passivity. It became gradually less and less influential in the conceptualization of foreign policy.

The Foreign Office faced another problem. The expectations generated by the government in its keenness to highlight its commitment to an issue of national importance, such as Kashmir, sharpened the contrast between promise and performance, and the public felt let down. The Foreign Office then ended up clutching at minor gains to magnify them disproportionately, a device which continued to feed myths about our invincibility and to undermine public understanding of the realities of international politics. We, therefore, unwittingly painted ourselves in a corner where a faint touch of failure made us look defeated. This gave the public another cause for criticism of the Foreign Office that came under assault from leaders of public opinion.

The so-called committees on Kashmir helped stoke the fire. They were in the hands of ambitious or moribund politicians, who used the issue as a ladder to power or a source of new lease in political life. A hard line on Kashmir, responding to uninformed public sentiments whipped up by years of rhetoric by the leadership and propaganda by the Foreign Office became an end to strengthen their domestic political stature. The Foreign Office also fell into this trap as we chased shadow resolutions as icons of success to be worshipped for their own sake. The committees and the Foreign Office became confederates in rigidifying our position on Kashmir.

Our foreign policy is still trapped in old assumptions and in some ways we are still trying to preserve the fiction of the old world even in the present phase of re-engagement with the United States. We still remain addicted to old alliances. We should learn from the past and submit our foreign policy to democratization. What we need is openness, public debate and consensus-building leading to a clear-eyed perception of our national priorities, limitations, and capabilities. The signs seem hopeful.

The whole truth

By Hafizur Rahman


THE Quran exhorts believers to hold God in awe and speak the truth, frankly and fearlessly. This, it says, will correct their deeds. Reading the collection of speeches delivered by Muhammad Rustam Kayani, 40 to 45 years ago, one is compelled to feel that it was these words of the holy book that guided him in life and made him speak the truth. He certainly held God in awe and not President Ayub Khan.

It has been an edifying experience going through The Whole Truth, a book that contains, I think, the entire range of speeches made by Justice M.R. Kayani, both when he was a judge of the High Court and after retirement, although I had read many of these when they were reported in full by the English newspapers. I couldn’t help conjecturing what would have been their impact in these times when, a few years ago, a ruling regime and a chief justice of Pakistan barely escaped an almost physical clash.

I have been motivated to do this piece by the feeling that mention of the book would give me an opportunity to write about the man himself, a great son of Pakistan of whom any country would be proud. We have been sadly remiss in remembering our heroes, and even to the Quaid-i-Azam we just pay lip-service at his anniversaries, I thought it would do no harm to tell my readers of his personality and character and his claim to fame.

Mr Kayani died in November, 1962, while on a speaking visit to Chittagong, hardly a month after he retired as chief justice of West Pakistan. How time flies! It is 41 years, almost a lifetime, since this country lost a forthright and independent- minded judge and the most popular speaker in its history, for I don’t see anyone who can be said to have replaced him in the latter slot. But it is only his contemporaries who recall him now, and the new generations do not even know his name. How can they? Can you imagine a chapter in a government-sponsored school or college textbook about a judge who stood up to a military dictator?

A very serious person otherwise, even grim, (and a veritable dictator at home, according to his sons) Justice Kayani had an impish humour that could really be biting when he wanted to lambaste his pet aversions like hypocrisy, sycophancy, authoritarianism and self-aggrandisement on the part of men in high positions. It even showed itself in his judgments. I suppose he couldn’t help that. After all, judgments too are a vehicle of self-expression. One small book of his is called “A judge may also laugh”.

You will enjoy the captions he gave to his various speeches when they were published in book form. Here are a few: “Preserve your bachelor state, lady doctors!” “Have you an enemy in the High Court?” “Of political rabbits and whimsical kings,” “On being described as consumptive by a beautiful girl,” “Civil necessity versus civilization,” “Some lapses and excesses make no difference,” and “Use your intelligence occasionally,” and many more.

M.R. Kayani came from Kohat and was elected for the Indian Civil Service in 1927. After training in England, he served for eight years on the executive, and was transferred to the judicial side in 1938. Nothing better could have happened to that institution than his induction, especially when he became a member, a real ornament, of Pakistan’s judiciary in 1947.

The judge’s career as a public speaker (in select gatherings) started when he was elected president of the CSP Association, which office he retained until he retired. His fame spread and he began to be invited to address educational institutions, professional bodies and social organizations. So much so that within the 27 days between retirement and death, he spoke before five gatherings at places as far apart as Abbottabad and Rajshahi.

However, it was not to laugh that people thronged the places where Justice Kayani was scheduled to addressed the public. It was his sardonic comments on the ways of the government and its leaders and the importance that most of us give to matters that do not really matter in the final analysis. It was

also the bold manner in which he shot his barbs of sarcasm at the top man in the country, in such a soft and unobtrusive way, that he either did not mind or did not understand the allusions.

But once General Ayub went red in the face when, concluding his speech before the CSP Association’s dinner where the president was the chief guest, Mr Kayani said, “I forgot to introduce you to my Association. Gentlemen, this is General Ayub, and as president he will need the patience of Ayub.” I don’t know why but Ayub Khan was visibly annoyed, and the tremendous applause that followed the speech irked him even more.

Smarting under the quips, sallies and thrusts of the welcoming address, he could barely control his temper. He dismissed Mr Kayani’s advocacy of more safeguards for public servants, and said he was not going to pamper them and turn the civil service into an orphanage. His tone was aggressive and stunned everyone, from the governor downwards. Only Mr Kayani remained unruffled, even when Ayub Khan shot a verbal arrow at him by saying, “You have taken considerable pains over the writing of your speech. I hope you give equal care to the writing of your judgments,” reminding him of the hundreds of cases pending in the courts.

What happened immediately afterwards was that President Ayub was in one part of the lounge with the governor and the old guard of the service, while Justice Kayani held darbar in another part, surrounded by admiring young members of the CSP. After the president had left, he told a confidante, “He has not said the last word. I will reply to him from every corner of the country and from every platform available to me.”

And he did. But thereafter his speeches no longer remained confined to service matters. He began to speak of martial law, its ethics and its effects on democracy, the supremacy of the democratic way of life, about fundamental rights in the context of the powers of the superior courts, and the decline in standards and morals of society — all in his typical manner that was more caustic than admonitory.

It’s a wonderful experience, going through ‘The Whole Truth.‘ The beauty of the language, the incisive way of making his point, the fearless comments on government policies viewed from the angle of justice and equity and the law, all these have a most exhilarating effect on the reader. I can’t ask our government leaders to read it because they don’t read anything except reports about their speeches in newspapers, but I would certainly recommend the book to the judges of today so that they can see for themselves how one of them acted more than 40 years ago.

PS. In response to reader Zainul Abedin’s letter to the editor. I’m sorry I am not on e-mail. Please look into website of Adventure Foundation of Pakistan for the information you want. It is www.adventurefoundation.org.pk

The union makes the Third World strong

By Mahir Ali


IN his home town of Jangsu, Lee Kyung-hae was revered as a pioneer. Having inherited about 30 hectares of land in an agriculturally inhospitable corner of South Korea, and armed with a university degree in the latest techniques, he laboured hard to turn it into a thriving model farm. Keen to share the secrets of his success, Lee extended the role of his Seoul farm by inaugurating a college where students could gain experience of the methods he employed.

His efforts won him a United Nations rural leadership award in 1988. Not long afterwards, however, South Korea opened its market to Australian cows, offering at the same time cheap loans to farmers for expanding their stocks. The price of beef plummeted. Lee had obtained loans at much higher rates. The value of his 300 head of cattle suddenly diminished, and he was forced to sell dozens of cows each month simply in order to repay the interest. The cattle eventually ran out, so the banks moved in for the kill by taking possession of his land.

Soon, in a further blow to farmers, the burgeoning trend towards “free” trade prised open South Korea’s rice market. His personal experience had made Lee sensitive to the deteriorating plight of the farmers — not just in South Korea, but throughout much of the Third World. He threw himself into protests at a trend that benefited only rich countries and large multinational corporations.

In 1990, Lee tried to disembowel himself with a Swiss penknife in Geneva as a protest against the Uruguay Round agreement that opened his country to rice imports. Lee did not relax his vigil while the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was transformed into the World Trade Organization and Uruguay gave way to the Doha Round. “WTO kills” became his patent slogan.

In the Mexican resort of Cancun two weeks ago, while South Korean farmers, Mexican peasants and various other activists were trying to pull down the barriers that separated the protesters from the delegates to a crucial WTO conference, Lee, without warning, plunged a knife into his own heart. His slogan turned out, in a sense, to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the anti-globalization movement gained another martyr.

In an article published last month in Korean AgroFood magazine, Lee had bemoaned the fate that has befallen millions like him. “I am crying out my words to you that have boiled so long in my body,” he wrote. “It is a fact that since the WTO agreement, we have never been paid our production costs. Sometimes prices dropped to a quarter of what they used to be. How would your emotional reaction be if your salary dropped suddenly to a half without knowing clearly the reason?” He added: “My warning goes to all citizens that uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO members’ officials are leading to an undesirable globalization of inhumane, environment-distorting, farmer-killing and undemocratic [policies]. It should be stopped immediately, otherwise the false logic of neo-liberalism will perish the diversity of global agriculture and [bring] disaster to all.”

There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that at Cancun delegates from less prosperous parts of the world decided against allowing the United States, the European union and Japan to have their way. It is not entirely inconceivable that the determination of some of these delegates was firmed up by the desperation inherent in Lee’s ultimate sacrifice.

Many motivated commentators in the West have decried the collapse of the Cancun talks as a catastrophe; and most of them have blamed the breakdown on the refusal of the poorer nations to play their customary role as supplicants. From the developing world’s point of view, however, it wasn’t a disaster at all. Quite to the contrary, it represents a silver lining.

Yes, trade is necessary. It is important to economies at every stage of development. But must it be conducted on terms that are beneficial more or less exclusively to the highly industrialized nations? The US, the EU and Japan are keen, even adamant, that less-developed countries should dismantle all barriers to western agricultural produce. They are reluctant, however, to reciprocate.

Agriculture is heavily subsidized in many developed countries. This enables American, European and Japanese farmers, for example, to produce wheat, rice and beef at artificially low rates. If there are low tariffs involved, or none at all, these goods can then be exported to Third World countries at prices that undercut local produce, with ravaging results for unsubsidized local subsistence farmers, who find themselves unable to compete.

At the same time, any Third World produce headed for European or American markets attracts high tariffs, so again it can’t compete.

This is not just unfair trade, it is also unfree trade. At Cancun, the newly formed Group of 21 — which includes China, India and Brazil, as well as Pakistan, and represents nearly half of all humanity — decided that the only way forward was to reverse this trend. It insisted that the US and Europe open their markets.

It was not this insistence, however, that provoked the breakdown of negotiations. The credit for that collapse goes to Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner, who demanded, as quid pro quo for concessions on agriculture, discussions on an “investment treaty”.

This is widely presumed to have been an attempt to surreptitiously resurrect the Multilateral Agreement in Investment, which was pushed off the global trade agenda in the face of a Third World revolt during the 1990s, once its implications became clear. The MAI was designed to give multinational corporations greater powers, in effect, than national governments. Had it taken effect, such corporations would have been able to override national laws on, for example, minimum wages or the right of workers to organize themselves into unions.

This wickedness, which would have enabled large western firms to immeasurably strengthen their stranglehold over developing economies, was nipped in the bud. However, Lamy’s audacious performance in Cancun — which caused alarm even among delegates from some European countries - suggests that the dream of infinite corporate power has not been abandoned. To their credit, African nations decided they were having none of it.

The new investment rules outlined for occupied Iraq offer an example of the favoured western approach. Much of Iraq’s huge state sector is being privatized, with foreign investors not only permitted 100 per cent ownership of key facilities (such as power plants), but also given the right to repatriate every penny of their profits. This thoroughly colonial approach more or less guarantees that Iraq will not prosper, although fortunes may be made at its expense. Crucially, the new rules do not apply to the oil industry — if only because such a blatant move to steal its natural resources would almost certainly have intensified the ongoing rebellion.

The US will be somewhat less crude in exercizing control over Iraqi oil, but its overall approach offers a taste of what to expect if they enter into bilateral free trade agreements with Washington — which trade representative Robert Zoellick has declared to be his primary aim post Cancun.

The obvious analogy to be drawn here is that of a company offering individual contracts to workers as a means of undermining their collective bargaining abilities. This strategy has played a significant role over the past two decades in weakening organized labour across most western countries. The powers that be try to pass this off as progress, but in truth it represents a regression towards 19th-century neo-liberalism — the sort of conditions that provoked Karl Marx’s passionate polemics against capitalism and led to revolts across much of the industrialized world.

In Russia the unrest produced a revolutionary climax; elsewhere it attracted repression — but in most cases that strategy, unsustainable over the long term, gave way to welfare statism. The extent to which the welfare state was a prophylactic response to the Soviet experiment is illustrated by the fact that the drift towards a purer form of capitalism has picked up pace since the dissolution of the USSR. Rampant militarism is a part of the neo-liberal package.

Militant trade-unionism is one obvious means of resisting the return to 19th-century values and relations of production. And, at a macrocosmic level, that’s what we glimpsed at Cancun. The putative bosses will try every union-breaking trick in the book, from inducements and intimidation to starvation and the use of military force. They may enjoy short-term successes, but the neo-liberal project can be stymied by the global equivalent of working-class solidarity.

Lee Kyung-hae’s dying words to his compatriots on the Cancun barricades were: “Don’t worry about me, just struggle your hardest.” They echo the final message of Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant to the US who excelled both as a union organizer and as a songwriter in the early 20th century. Sentenced to death on a (probably false) murder charge, he told his comrades before facing a firing squad, “Don’t mourn, organize!”

That was powerful advice in 1915. Unfortunately, in 2003 it remains a valuable exhortation.

e-mail mahirali2@netscape.net