Published by EH.NET (August 2001)

Susan Ariel Aaronson, Taking Trade to the Streets: The Lost History of

Public Efforts to Shape Globalization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan

Press, 2001. xix + 264 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11212-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Alfred E. Eckes, Contemporary History Institute, Ohio


Since the Seattle riots in December 1999 disrupted efforts to launch a new

round of multilateral negotiations under auspices of the World Trade

Organization, government and corporate efforts to advance the trade

liberalization agenda have stalled. In this timely book, business historian

Susan Aaronson, who is a senior fellow with the National Policy Association,

explains how a global network of individuals and nongovernmental organizations

came to distrust the elitist free-trade program and mobilized successfully to

block its advance.

Aaronson presents her research and conclusions in seven chapters. She explains

first how trade critics redefined the terms of debate to include non-economic

criteria — labor standards, the environment, and food safety. Then, she

offers a brief history of American protectionism from 1789 to the 1960s. Here

Aaronson shows that the debate over trade policy was never simply about

protecting industries. She argues that social and human rights concerns have

been part of the trade debate since the 1790s. Subsequent chapters indicate

how GATT came to intersect with the regulatory social compact, how new

rationales for protection emerged in the 1980s as business turned to a

deregulatory agenda, and how public debates in Canada on a free trade

agreement influenced later reactions in Canada and the U.S. to NAFTA. Finally

she considers how the debate over the Uruguay Round agreements, establishing

the WTO, sharpened public divisions and further educated activists about the

relationships between trade agreements and other policy goals. Aaronson

correctly notes that the trade critics are not protectionists in the

traditional sense of wishing to protect specific industries from import

competition. Rather, their goals are political. “They want to preserve

national regulations that protect consumers, workers, and the environment, but

they also want to protect their political influence over such regulations” (p.

177). She observes that the critics are strange bedfellows. Some are liberals

eager to regulate national markets — such as Citizen Trade Watch, Friends of

the Earth, and organized labor. Others are nationalists, like the U.S.

Business and Industrial Council, determined to defend sovereignty and freedom

of action.

The activists succeeded, Aaronson says, because they shared a three-pronged

strategy. They constructed formal and informal alliances — particularly among

likeminded individuals in Canada, Mexico and the United States and among

activists in WTO member countries. They mobilized individuals around the world

using new communications technologies, particularly the internet and fax

communications. As they energized a worldwide network, business and corporate

sponsors of trade liberalization continued to employ an “inside the Beltway

strategy,” one that focused on influencing key members of Congress. And,

third, Aaronson says the critics successfully used old-fashioned tactics (such

as consumer boycotts and teach-ins) to rally and educate their supporters.

What impact have the activists had? Aaronson cites the NAFTA labor and

environmental side agreements, and increasing efforts of the WTO, the World

Bank and other international agencies to reach out and engage their critics in

discussion. Most of all, she says that the critics have stimulated discussions

about NAFTA, GATT and global economic interdependence through demonstrations,

teach-ins, and forums in the U.S. and around the world. They have put trade on

the news media’s agenda.

This is a stimulating book and it certainly helps to inform the public and

scholars about the roots of ongoing trade debate. In particular, Aaronson is

to be commended for looking behind the slogans “protectionism” and “free

trade” and showing that the debate is more complex and variegated than many

editorial writers seem to think. She conducted over seventy interviews with

activists, academics, journalists and government officials but not,

surprisingly, with business leaders and corporate lobbyists. The result is a

somewhat unidimensional account.

On at least one major issue, Aaronson’s “lost history” is incomplete. She

concludes that U.S. trade activism in the 1990s “came from Canada” (p. 110),

and grew out of debates over the U.S.- Canada bilateral free trade agreement.

In fact, the Seattle demonstrations had their genesis far more in efforts of a

no-name coalition of U.S. interest groups and nongovernmental organizations

to defeat NAFTA, block U.S. accession to the WTO, and thwart efforts to renew

fast-track trade negotiating authority for President Clinton. Concerned that

those directing U.S. trade policy were out of touch with grassroots concerns,

representatives of organized labor, environmentalists, consumer groups,

conservatives, congressional staffers, and others formed a loose coalition and

began meeting regularly on Capitol Hill in 1991. In the aftermath of the Cold

War, which long had divided liberals and conservatives, members of this group

quickly established new friendships and shared concerns about the consequences

of open borders on the American nation and its citizens. After defeats on

NAFTA and the WTO, it was apparent that the group lacked the financial

resources to beat big business lobbyists in the corridors of power. They

simply could not buy votes the way President Clinton and U.S. Trade

Representative Mickey Kantor did to pass NAFTA.

To change public policy, some of the coalition perceived that they needed to

take the battle to the streets and thus present their case to the world’s

media. The rest is familiar history. The battle of Seattle ricocheted around

the world — to Bangkok, Prague, Davos, Quebec City, and Genoa. The

proliferation and intensification of these protests suggests that elected

officials have yet to devise a successful response to activists and to

re-establish democratic consent for trade liberalization.

Aaronson’s book, while certainly not the last word on this evolving topic,

offers scholars and the interested public a valuable introduction to the

origins and complexities of contemporary trade protests.

Alfred Eckes is Ohio Eminent Research Professor in Contemporary History at

Ohio University. A former member of the U.S. International Trade Commission,

he is completing a book with Thomas Zeiler on “Globalization and the American