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The New Zealand that Mike Moore grew up in was an
insular place. “Even the humble spud was opposed by the merchants and
church in its day. A church leader railed against the potato as being a
dangerous narcotic, almost as bad as tea. The merchants and farmers
wanted to protect their profits… against this dangerous, competitive
new crop,” he writes in his latest book, “A Brief History of the
Future”. If New Zealand turned its back on the world, the world ignored
New Zealand. Ideas did not flow into or out of it. It produced wool,
not world leaders. Mr Moore, who takes over at the World Trade
Organisation on September 1st, has changed that.

Born
in Whakatane in 1949, Mr Moore joined the then left-wing Labour Party
as a teenager. He left school without going to university, and was
unemployed for a while. After working as a printer, a social worker and
a trade-union researcher, he became New Zealand’s youngest-ever member
of parliament, aged 23, in 1972. But he lost his seat in 1975, and
almost lost his life to a brain tumour. In those wilderness years, he
read voraciously and wrote voluminously. In the process, he did one of
the hardest things a politician can do: he changed his mind.

He
realised that globalisation was happening, and that countries that
resisted it would sink. What he saw going on around him, as much as the
books he read, convinced him. “It was absurd. We were importing TV
sets, pulling them apart and reassembling them.” He came to see
protectionism as the enemy of the poor, because it put up the price of
basic consumer goods; and free trade as the natural corollary of the
internationalism of the left. “Why,” he asks, “is foreign aid good, but
buying foreign products evil?”

In 1984 he got a
chance to put his ideas into practice. Labour swept to power, and he
became trade minister. The government embarked on one of the bravest
economic and social experiments in recent times. Mr Moore’s job, to
open the country’s heavily protected markets to international
competition, was at the core of its radicalism; and he was good at it.
His political street-fighting skills and instinctive sense of when to
compromise helped push change through; his erudite charm helped win
waverers. In full flow, he is awesome. He peppers his speech with
quotes, anecdotes and ideas. Some think he is off the wall; others
think he is wonderful.

The ideas behind Mr Moore’s
agenda were gaining currency around the world, and New Zealand was in
the vanguard of change. For the first time in history, the rest of the
world turned to watch this distant little country. Delegations arrived.
Economists wrote papers. Journalists came for interviews.

Despite
the global adulation, Labour’s policies did not go down quite as well
at home. The government fell out of favour—but Mr Moore didn’t. In
1990, facing electoral annihilation, the party co-opted him to serve as
prime minister for eight weeks. Labour still lost, but its reforms
survived. Mr Moore led the party in opposition until 1993.

Until
recently, his career looked finished. There was nowhere to go in New
Zealand. But then the chance of running the organisation created to
promote the ideas on which he had staked his career came up. He
shuttled around the globe, running down his savings as he wooed member
governments. By April 30th, when the term of his predecessor, Italy’s
Renato Ruggiero, was up, he had the backing of a majority of the WTO’s
134 members, including—crucially—America. But his rival, Thailand’s
Supachai Panichpakdi, would not admit defeat. There was a deadlock.
Eventually, they agreed to share a six-year term.

Mr
Moore, the first non-European to hold the job, is going first.
Technically, his role will be to oversee a new round of world trade
negotiations, which is due to start in Seattle in November: it will
cover, among other areas, agriculture, services, industrial tariffs
and, probably, electronic commerce.

But
he faces a tougher, and more critical, task. Mr Moore has to use his
bully pulpit to restore the WTO’s battered legitimacy. Around the
world, support for free trade is ebbing, and the WTO is copping much of
the blame for globalisation. It is under attack from an alliance of
trade unionists, environmentalists and others who accuse it of being
secretive and unaccountable. They say its rules advance giant
companies’ global ambitions at the expense of local jobs and cultures.
Those arguments will gain ground if WTO rules are seen to trump
national concerns over such explosive issues as genetically modified
crops.

Mr Moore admits that the WTO needs to
change. It has to open up, he says, and its processes must become more
transparent. But he denies that it is unaccountable, pointing out that
it is owned by member governments. And he passionately believes the WTO
is a good thing. “How would the absence of rules make globalisation
more palatable? Where would the little guy go then?”

His
real job will be to turn the tide of the argument. Mr Ruggiero tried,
but he was a low-profile leader who never carried conviction with angry
meetings of American steelworkers.

Mr Moore just
might. His disadvantage is his critics’ conviction that he is America’s
poodle. His advantage is his personal history. He was brought up in a
place that had less in common with America than it had with the poorer
countries that fear the consequences of globalisation. He knows the
problems that come with opening up, because he has lived through them.
He sympathises with the fears of the unions, because he worked for one.
He understands the language of the left, because he used to speak it.
When Mike Moore talks about ideas, they are not dry abstractions: he
has lived them.

Posted 26 Aug 1999 in Published articles, The Economist, Trade

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