P.T. Barnum could not have imagined a more salacious character to feature on his marquee posters. Donald Trump doesn’t even need make up; the orange skin, discoloration around the eyes and the bright yellow hair already give him a naturally clownish appearance. The act itself is grotesque. The elephant man, himself, would struggle to cause such revulsion. But, any apprehension by circus-goers, would fail to overcome the irresistible urge to see, once and for all, if the lion will eat the lion tamer.
The 45th President of the United States is the greatest show on earth, and the mainstream media are cashing in day-in and day-out. The Don Lemons, the Rachel Maddows, the Sean Hannities and the Tucker Calrsons climb on their fiber-optic high horses nightly to deliver their inflammatory monologues and preside over faux-opposition panels while behind the big top, animals are whipped and starved in their cages. The business of empire continues unabated while the people are transfixed by the loudmouth on the pulpit. The real actions and persistent policies of the American government are completely ignored.
MAGA hats and border walls make for riveting campaign rallies in the poorly educatednooks and crannies of this nation. Promises to “bring back jobs” and restore America to shining beauty are nothing but empty rhetoric designed to maintain the pretense of a popular base; to keep the illusion of democracy alive and give the voices of political analysts that flavor of sincerity. Underneath the pomposity and vulgarity of the Piñata Don extravaganza, hides an increasingly worried contingent of powerful corporate interests trying to salvage a global investment trade regime, which has been slipping away over the last decade.
The Best Laid Plans
When the Berlin Wall came down in the late eighties, Western investment bankers, lawyers and assorted capitalist enterprises went to work on the world with a blowtorch and a pair of pliers. Decades of slogging through the slow, and – in their eyes – ineffective protocols of the Bern Convention and WIPO, spurred corporate American giants like Pfizer, IBM, Dupont among others to change the focus of world trade from goods and services to intellectual property rights, setting their sights on the ongoing GATT negotiations.
They attacked the Uruguay round of talks, led by Pfizer CEO, Edmund Pratt, and managed to introduce IP into proceedings with the Basic Framework document. Though only a modest gain, it marked a significant victory for American multinationals, most of which relied heavily on investment in research and development to drive growth.
Out of the ashes of GATT, that drew to a close after Uruguay, emerged the WTO. What followed was a deluge of bilateral and multilateral trade deals largely benefiting Western corporations, and a tiny clique of lawyers, who cornered the market on writing, executing and arbitrating any disputes arising from these deals.
Hundreds of trade deals would be signed over the following ten to fifteen years. Riding the post-cold war propaganda wave of MTV, blue jeans and Michael Jordan, the U.S. hooked country after country on onerous agreements, which stipulated private companies could sue sovereign governments over internal legislations or other national developments, which might infringe on their investments and patent protection rackets. According to a study published in 2012 co-authored by Corporate Europe Observatory and the Transnational Institute, the number of investment arbitration cases ballooned from 38 to 450 between 1996 and 2011.
Over the last several years, many countries have either reneged on existing deals or have simply refused to renew their relationship with Western corporate entities. African nations extricated themselves from these agreements altogether, terminating existing ones and issuing a moratorium on signing new ones. Meanwhile, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela withdrew from the World Bank’s body, that administers trade disputes, the ICSID. Even Australia, a fellow Western nation, decided it would no longer include investor-state dispute provisions in its trade agreements.
The legal fees and the punitive judgments arising from the lawsuits pursued by corporations against sovereign countries can threaten the vital social services of many developing countries. Cases like Plama Consortium vs Bulgaria and Fraport vs The Philippines highlight the risk these legal fights pose to the sued nations’ populations. In the first lawsuit, although Bulgaria was awarded US$7m in legal fees, it remained on the hook for US$6.25m – which could have covered the salaries of over 1,700 nurses during a healthcare crisis, which was affecting the country at the time. The Philippines, was forced to spend US$58m to defend against two cases involving one plaintiff.
UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) found that legal and arbitration costs average US$8m. Adding insult to injury, “tribunals most frequently [require] parties to share tribunal and administrative costs equally and absorb their own legal fees”, which means that sovereign nations lose even when they win.
This secret tug of war between profit-driven behemoths and foreign national interests, which has been unfolding over the last few years never makes it to the nightly news in America. As usual, people are only fed narratives which will serve to sway public opinion, that will justify the necessary measures – whether the soft stick of economic sanctions or the outright use of Apaches and Cruise missiles.
The story lines are always simple and geared towards the common denominator. Even if Americans were so frivolous as to get behind the bombing of Brazil for better prices on tin for General Electric, it’s probably easier to make up a narrative of evil doers and bad hombres.
Lurking behind the “free trade” infrastructure is the other arm of the hegemonic beast, expressed alternatively as the drug war in Latin America or Western-funded terrorism in oil-rich Middle East. These are points of entry for the muscle when Western diplomats and arbitration lawyers fail to get their point across.
Donald Trump’s job is to signal to the world, on behalf of Western corporate interests, that the trade regime is not going as they wish and that all bets are off until the world gets back in line. In the meantime, the military-industrial complex is sharpening its knives and waiting for the go-ahead. The trade-dealer in Chief already has his marching orders.