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DAVOS, Switzerland — President Vicente Fox of Mexico was received very warmly at this year’s World Economic Forum summit in Davos. His message was clear: that globalization creates dangers, such as a deepening divide between rich and poor, and that these must be addressed if the globalization “backlash” is to be contained.

The same theme was heard at a dozen other Davos panels and seminar meetings this year, as well as in the remarkable two-way televised panel conducted between key Davos participants and their “rivals” at a sort of counter-Davos summit being held simultaneously in Rio de Janeiro.

In this latter event, financier George Soros led the way in almost accepting outright the antiglobalization critique — a gesture of appeasement that earned him few plaudits from either side and a warning that the middle way is a dangerous path to take between emotional arguments, even at the best of times. Meanwhile, more antiglobalization protesters, denied access by the Swiss police to the resort of Davos itself, roamed around the Swiss cantons, rioting in Zurich and blocking Switzerland’s motorways to demonstrate their feelings.

Yet could it be that Soros’ discomfort, as well as Fox’s stance and the outrage expressed by the protest groups are all the product of a deeply flawed understanding of the true situation?

That the world suffers from grotesque inequalities, that two-thirds of the global population live on the edge of subsistence, that suffering and disease abound, especially in Africa but also in parts of Asia: All these things are indisputable.

But are they the product of globalization and trade liberalization? Didn’t they exist before anyone had ever heard the word “globalization”? And is not the well-meaning linkage between the two phenomena not only profoundly misleading but actually the opposite of the truth?

It could surely be argued that the arrival of global communication and information, far from worsening the plight of the poorest, has brought it into focus as never before. It could also be argued that globalization, far from adding to inequalities, is an enormous leveling engine, opening up, for instance, huge new opportunities for women, balancing knowledge (which, after all, is power) and information access between individuals and the state as never before.

If one believes that the state should be not only the guardian of the civic order and the rule of law but also the fount of all welfare, equality and beneficence, then more state power and state protection must sound like a good thing. If, on the other hand, one believes that the state and its institutions, however well-managed, are bound to lead to a concentration and corruption of official power and, unless carefully constrained, to much greater inequality and unfairness, then the information explosion and the worldwide democratization of power and knowledge can only be an unreservedly good thing — a real instrument for attacking the world’s obvious evils as never before.

Above all, is it not clear that the worst victims of the attack on free-market and free-trade policies are the poorest countries themselves? For which countries have proved most ready to argue for protection and a return to trade barriers, and against whom?

Why, the most advanced economies of course, including the United States, Europe and Japan, and the powerful lobbies within them. The antiglobalists may think they are championing the poor against the rich when they demand a halt to free trade and the intervention of the state to carry forward the social agenda. But actually these are precisely the weapons being deployed against the poorest producers by the big monopolies, the big interests and the big unions in the richer world. These were the arguments that sank the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in December 1999, when U.S. President Bill Clinton, to his lasting shame, took the side of the American labor unions against imports from developing economies, drumming up every kind of excuse, from “social dumping” to “environmental health hazards,” to restrict commerce from the developing world and emerging markets.

No one can deny that strong, well-targeted government action is needed to help build up the social and legal infrastructure of the poorest communities in the world and to transmit skills and learning to the dispossessed. Nor should there be any hesitation in mobilizing the full resources of the advanced nations to meet emergencies and catastrophes, such as the recent Gujerat earthquake, or the prolonged agonies of drought in Africa.

But to use the case for that kind of enlightened public intervention to justify obstructing free global commerce is a distortion of the argument, and one that is bound to backfire on the very causes that the antiglobalization protesters claim to support.

The reality is that every voice raised against open trade and global commerce is a voice against the world’s poorest people, and a further barrier to their struggle to lift living standards. That is why it was sad to see the muddle-headed protesters against the Davos meeting yelling in favor of such destructive and cruel goals, and even sadder to hear voices from within the Davos forum itself actually supporting such twisted thinking.

The World Economic Forum has grown over the years to be a real force for global prosperity and for the progressive widening of that prosperity to all regions and peoples. It should not now lose its nerve or be deterred from these high ideals by confusion, ignorance and violence.

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