WORLD

The collapse of a consensus

JOHN HAY November 2 1981
WORLD

The collapse of a consensus

JOHN HAY November 2 1981

The collapse of a consensus

MEXICO

The fireworks were intended as a pleasant finale. But as leaders from 22 countries sipped coffee on a starlit Cancun terrace, a fickle Mexican breeze showered them with sparks and cinders, forcing them to flinch and duck. To Pierre Trudeau, one of the orchestrators of last week’s North-South gathering, it was an unneeded reminder that affairs of state too often end in disappointment. Only hours before, he and his advisers had come close to scoring a diplomatic triumph. By dinner they had failed.

Nevertheless, the participants left for home Saturday still in friendly spirits

and that in itself was something of an achievement. Autocrats and democrats, Marxists and a Republican, they were an extraordinary assortment as they discussed the searing issues of poverty and injustice that divide the world. To a striking degree they agreed on goals— trade liberalization, aid for the very poorest, the need for every country to aim for self-sufficiency in food. But for a few hours on the last day, it seemed that much more would be achieved: a break in the deadlock that has stalled a global conference on North-South questions for more than a year.

For all the diplomatic wordplay, the global negotiations issue is simple—and crucial: will United Nations talks on the whole array of North-South issues be settled in its specialized agencies (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fupd and others), or will they be

decided in the UN forum itself? In other words, will the afflictions of the poor countries be treated by agencies dominated by the rich, or in the General Assembly, where every country casts an equal vote and the poor have the majority?

Trudeau had been working at the sharp end of the issue for months. At the seven-nation Ottawa summit in July, U.S. President Ronald Reagan was convinced for the first time to consider preparing for global negotiations. But in Cancún, Reagan added his own conditions. The chief among them: a proviso that the agencies do the work and that their decisions be final.

After listening for a day and a half (sitting in as chairman for Austria’s ailing chancellor, Bruno Kreisky), Trudeau and his officials thought they could achieve a compromise. By blurring the distinction between the UN and its agencies, and by reformulating the U.S. conditions so they would be salable to the South, the Canadians hoped that they could bring about a start to global negotiations by year-end. In corridor bargaining, Reagan’s people were agreeable. So were other northern nations. With backing from the Mexican hosts, the Canadian proposals won broad support among the 14 less developed countries.

Then the consensus collapsed. Resumption of the final session was postponed for an hour, a tactical blunder— and in that time southern opponents of the Trudeau plan mustered allies with the argument that Washington was not being pushed hard enough. Rejecting Trudeau’s gradualist approach—aimed, he said, at getting the Americans to the table—the 22 merely settled for a declaration of the need for global negotiations, thus imposing no duty on Washington to start bargaining. “I think,” said Trudeau of the poor countries,

“they do not understand the Americans as well as some of the northern countries.” Just as unhappily, he conceded that Washington had probably killed any chance of setting up an energy affiliate at the World Bank—a scheme, supported by many countries, for channelling petro-dollars into poor-country energy development.

If the Canadian attempt at mediation foundered, however, Trudeau’s reign as chairman was judged remarkably effective. He enforced an edict against speech-reading from the start, gavelling Nigeria’s long-winded president, Shehu Shagari, to a stop after the allotted 10 minutes. Aides ostentatiously slipped him reminder notes as speakers passed the fiveand eight-minute marks. One official even wielded a pocket calculator with a beeper to keep time. The result: a freewheeling exchange of a kind rarely held in the paper-stuffed confines of diplomatic discourse. For some, said Trudeau, being contradicted in debate was a novel and “probably a shattering experience.”

While they may have hit on touchy subjects, they avoided specific solutions for a world in which a billion people suffer chronic malnutrition. There was also a vast gulf between Washington and just about everywhere else. To most, the spreading agonies of hunger and disease are proof of a failure in the world’s economic system. The Americans prescribed bigger doses of corporate investment for much of what ails the poor countries.

For all that, there was widespread acceptance that aid is no answer except for the poorest of the poor, who can neither generate their own investment nor attract it from abroad. The development arguments have shifted instead to trade, commodity agreements to support prices for primary producers, easier financing terms and—most of allpoor countries’ demands for more power in international institutions.

There, however, lies the biggest gulf of all. Washington has no wish to con-

front the combined force of more than 100 underdeveloped countries. Said Regan: “What you have to do is to go one on one with these nations and say: ‘What is your problem?’ ” But going one on one agai-nst the rich and powerful Americans is a diswaying prospect for any country.

JOHN HAY