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Bush turns his back on the world's poor


By: Julian Borger
 The Guardian Weekly, May 21, 2002



Not long after the United States increased its aid budget from 0.10% to 0.13% of GDP, the "compassionate" side of President George Bush's "compassionate conservatism", that minor palliative was swamped this month by a farm subsidy bill that will rob some of the world's poorest people of their livelihoods.

The bill was passed in the Democratic-controlled Senate with the support of the White House, and the president signed it on Monday. It involves an 80% per cent increase in subsidies for US producers of wheat, cotton, peanuts, corn and a list of other produce, grown in competition with the developing world. The bill will cost an estimated $180bn over the next 10 years.

That sum swamps the roughly $10bn a year the US offers in foreign aid to the world's poor, which is the lowest level of development assistance offered by any of the world's industrialised countries. In fact, the combined value of the farm subsidies in the US, Europe and Japan is about equivalent to the entire gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa and seven times the sum the rich world gives the poor world in aid.

The World Bank released an assessment of the impact of these protectionist measures on one of Africa's most desperately poor countries, Burkina Faso, where many of the rural population scrape a living at $1 a day growing cotton. It found that, if the cotton price was not distorted by (mainly US) subsidies, the number of people living in poverty there could be cut by half over six years.

When the US farm bill was debated in the Senate, there were many speeches by Democrats and Republicans alike about the salvation that the farm bill would provide for good, honest, hard-toiling US farmers, the bedrock of the nation. But it will do nothing of the sort. Nearly 80% of the money will go to the country's richest 10% of farms, mainly agro-industrial enterprises in the South and Midwest.

The bill is more about campaign contributions and votes in swing farm states such as Iowa, South Dakota and Missouri, where no one wants to go into an election tagged with an "anti-farm" label.

Similarly, a bill signed by Bush in March to protect US steel was largely aimed at winning support in the industrial centres of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, which could also go either way in 2004.

The new farm bill simply makes the US as craven in its trade policy as the European Union. However, many EU members are impatient with the union's common agricultural policy, which is in place principally to suit the interests of French farmers.

They were hoping to follow the free trade banner picked up by Bush during the election campaign and waved emphatically at last November's international trade negotiations in Doha, which were supposed to give the third world a better deal. The US delegation, in particular, promised freer trade in agricultural produce.

The coming three-year "Doha round" of trade talks now looks to be in trouble even before it gets off the ground. Administration officials argue that the farm bill will concentrate the minds of the Europeans and convince them of the need of fundamental reform. However, it is more likely to entrench resistance.

Likewise, the members of the US Senate are mostly preoccupied with local matters and parochial interests. They too look to the White House for leadership that is based on a broader vision. However, that leadership is missing, and its absence is likely to drag the US towards an ever-worsening crisis in its relations with the rest of the world.

The unifying purpose that September 11 imposed on the Bush administration now appears only to have distracted attention from the political, strategic and moral vacuum at the heart of the Bush project. The inexperienced son of a former president was backed by corporate America and Southern conservatives primarily as an antidote to Bill Clinton, who to them represented regulation and moral decadence.

Bush frequently portrayed his campaign as a moral catharsis for the US. But for the rest of the world the immorality of the farm bill is infinitely more profound.

Therein lies the danger. The Europeans and the developing world now associate US free trade advocacy with hypocrisy. The failure of the Doha round would severely dampen global economic growth.

Any world downturn would spread anti-Americanism, fuelled by the Bush administration's reluctance to subordinate US national interests even minimally to global efforts to combat environmental damage, or the development of weapons of mass destruction. Day by day Washington is either distancing itself from international organisations established to monitor such weapons, or manipulating their leadership.

Washington's professed support for democracy abroad has meanwhile been left threadbare by the welcome the Bush administration gave to the short-lived coup last month in Venezuela.

In the current climate the beneficiaries of the new anti-Americanism are unlikely to be progressive parties and movements. They will be the kind of reactionary groups the US has been fighting in Afghanistan, and which are gaining ground in Europe.

Clinton, derided on the right for shaming the nation, had in fact built up an extraordinary legacy of international goodwill towards the US, which was in part reflected in the world's response to September 11.

He used the US's military might and diplomatic clout to help bring peace to the Balkans and Northern Ireland.

The Middle East peace summit at Camp David failed, but it came closer to a final settlement than ever before, and at least offered hope. The effort did not go unnoticed in the Arab world. Clinton risked his presidency on promoting free trade, and there was a sense that, although the Senate had not ratified the Kyoto global warming agreement and a host of other treaties he had signed, the US would at least remain at the centre of international dialogue. That is no longer the case.

With the US defining its national interests more narrowly with each passing day, the world is rapidly becoming more volatile. It is becoming a more dangerous place for everybody, but most of all for the world's only superpower.

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