President Donald Trump is against the big, multilateral “free trade” deals (which have little to do with trade) supported by so-called “liberal elites” (who are not really liberal), like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Such deals include the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which Trump withdrew, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which appears to be dead in the water, due in large part to popular opposition. The more moderate wing of the Democratic Party (represented by the likes of Bernie Sanders) also opposes the big, multilateral deals, but for opposite reasons. Unions, working people and small businesses see the TPP and TTIP as a way of undermining their rights. Trump, on the other hand, sees them as not going far enough to maximize US corporate profits. Trump prefers bilateral (or one-to-one) deals because, in a bilateral deal, the US is the biggest partner, whereas in an association, the US position is weakened.
But in terms of the basics—privatizing public resources, cutting back on workers’ rights, opening the environment to exploitation—there’s little difference between bi- and multilateralism when it comes to “free trade.” In poor countries, “free trade” is underpinned by the iron fist of militarism. Consider the case of Congo in the 1960s: the US, Britain and Belgium overthrew the government, backed a dictatorship and laid the foundations for an exploitative Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) that enabled US corporations to sue to the government of the impoverished people.
The US State Department’s website lists three broad aims of BITs: “protect investment abroad…[;] encourage the adoption of market-oriented domestic policies that treat private investment in an open, transparent, and non-discriminatory way; and support the development of international law standards consistent with these objectives.” BITs are only “nationalistic” in the sense that they benefit national corporations. They undermine domestic workers and investors by allowing country x to open businesses or acquire businesses in country y. “Nationalism” in this context really means US corporate dominance.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration signed BITs with several countries, most of them extremely poor. Early test-subjects included: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, 1984), the Republic of Congo (1990), Bangladesh (1986), Cameroon (1986), Egypt (1986), Grenada (1986), Haiti (1983), Senegal (1983) and Turkey (1985). Let’s look at the DRC, also known for a time as Zaire.
In June 1960, the Belgian Congo became independent of its European master. Patrice Lumumba came to power on a popular vote and made clear his intentions to use Congo’s resources in the interests of the Congolese: “The exploitation of the mineral riches of the Congo should be primarily for the profit of our own people and other Africans,” he told New York businesspeople. In September 1960, President Kasa-Vubu dismissed Lumumba, who had been Prime Minister for less than three months before the British, Belgian and US intelligence services conspired to murder him.
In Britain, MI6 officer and later peer, Daphne Park, was asked if MI6 was involved in Lumumba’s assassination. “I organized it,” said Park. The BBC acknowledges: “Lumumba made a fateful step − he turned to the Soviet Union for help [economic and military]. This set off panic in London and Washington.” Lumumba and his supporters, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okita, were tortured and executed by forces from Belgium and Congo’s Katanga region, before being dissolved in acid.
From the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission we learn that British intelligence plotted Operation Celeste, the murder of UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, who died in a plane crash. Hammarskjöld refused to withdraw UN troops from Congo, fearing further massacres between the warring factions. Britain’s MI5 and the Special Operations Executive were involved in the plot, which was hatched in apartheid South Africa via the South African Institute for Maritime Research. The CIA was also involved. Letters exchanged between agencies state: “Dag is becoming troublesome… and should be removed… I want his removal to be handled more efficiently than was Patrice.” The plan was to explode Hammarskjöld’s plane with a bomb allegedly supplied by Union Minière, a Belgian mining company with private interests in the copper-rich Katanga region. In 1965, Lumumba’s pro-US Chief of Staff for the Congolese National Army, Mobutu Sese Seko, came to power. Mobuto quickly garnered an international reputation for brutality, banning political parties and crushing secessionist movements.
By 1984, when the US signed its first-ever BIT with the country, Congo was importing 60 per cent of its food, despite having plenty of arable land; half of all Congolese children died before the age of five; and wages were 10 per cent of what they had been prior to independence. The New York Times reported at the time: “Zaire has one of Africa’s largest markets and a liberal investment code.” The BIT stated that the objective was “to provide US investors with significant investment guarantees and assurances as a way of inducing additional foreign investment.” Another aim was “to encourage, and facilitate participation by private enterprise to the maximum extent practicable.” It also noted: “Each of these models was developed after lengthy and extensive consultations within the US Government and with the private sector.”
As well as the generic misery and mass deaths that come with propping up a dictator, one of the other anti-democratic facets of the BIT is the fact that American companies could now sue the Congolese government for alleged inhibitions of profit. In 1993, the firm American Manufacturing Trading sued Zaire in a case “based on the provisions of a [BIT].” The law suit chides Mobutu’s failure to prevent looting of foreign-owned corporations. It says that this is the fault of the Congolese people (“the government”), who must compensate companies like American Manufacturing Trading.
This model of using the iron fist of militarism to impose the “velvet glove” of so-called free trade is an in old one that generalizes around the world.
This article is an excerpt from my new book, Privatized Planet: “Free Trade” as a Weapon Against Democracy, Healthcare and the Environment, (New Internationalist).