Understanding the US Global Justice Movement


On November 30th, 1999, the world woke up to the reality of Americans’ ambivalence toward economic globalization. In the streets of Seattle, an estimated 40,000 protesters from more than a thousand non-governmental organizations (NGOs) defending human rights, labor, consumer and environmental interests rose against the international economic agenda of the World Trade Organization. Both political analysts and social activists spoke of a historic landmark in American trade politics, a milestone for the recognition of the preeminence of social and environmental values over the logic of the market. Similarly, American political elites seemed to sense that new winds were blowing. While Clinton urged the need for “globalization with a human face” (Clinton, 1999), US Secretary of Commerce William Daley stated that after Seattle, “things would never be the same” (Robin, 2000, 2). Or would they?

At first sight, it seems that the battle of Seattle hardly revolutionized the politics of globalization in the United States over the course of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Whether one focuses on the liberalization of US-Chinese trade relations (2000) or on the ratification of a series of bilateral or regional agreements under the Bush administration, “free trade” has continued to be the driving force of Washington’s foreign economic policy – a principle at time amended to protect sensible sectors like steel, textile or agriculture. Even the recent discredit of free market ideology amidst the sharpest financial crisis since the Great Depression has not fundamentally altered the way American decision-makers manage economic globalization, as witnessed by President Obama’s commitment to reject protectionist solutions to the crisis at successive G20 summits, or his recent promise to restart the negotiations of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

This relative continuity in America’s trade and investment policy contrasts with the revolutionary symbolism of the “battle of Seattle”. Ten years after these landmark protests, can the US-based global justice movement (GJM) be classified as a short-lived anomaly in the archives of American political history? Or did the mobilization of anti-/alter-globalist activists since the early 1990s change the politics of globalization in the United States in more subtle ways than is generally acknowledged?

Research objectives

The purpose of this research project is four-fold. First, it analyzes the evolution of globalization debates in the United States and the emergence of a new political discourse within civil society designed to influence the ends and means of American domestic and foreign economic policies. Second, it examines the mobilization of the GJM from the early debates on the North American Free Trade Agreement at the beginning of the 1990s to the mobilizing efforts of the GJM in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” with an emphasis on the tactics of the movement and its relations with American political institutions (Congress, the Executive, and the party system). These analytical tools will serve a third objective: identifying the political legacy of the GJM in the United States through a close examination of legislative measures, institution-building and political discourse. Finally, this research project will seek to explain the victories and defeats of the anti-/alter-globalist network by discussing on the one hand, the ideological and institutional constraints that the movement faced, and on the other, the political assets that helped it to achieve some of its objectives.

Research method

My research will rely on both primary and secondary sources to analyze the mobilization of anti-/alter-globalization activists and evaluate their influence on the policy process. It will primarily focus on four interconnected spheres that are quintessential to the political agenda of the GJM: 1) trade and investment; 2) labor and human rights; 3) consumer safety and environmental protection; 4) development aid.

My analysis will first rely on discourse analysis to compare and contrast the perspectives of the main political actors in order to trace the recent evolution of globalization debates in the United States. To do so, it will draw from a variety of primary sources including lobbying materials, statements, reports, press releases as well as congressional testimonies from both anti- and pro-globalists.

In order to gauge the influence of global justice activists on the policy process, I will also examine the final language of the key domestic and international laws for or against which segments of the GJM mobilized in the past two decades. I will complement the study of legislative proposals and international agreements with secondary sources, drawing from legal experts in various spheres such as trade and investment, foreign aid, environmental, labor law, etc. These scholarly studies should provide an objective basis to assess the degree to which policy outcomes correspond to or contrast with the priorities of anti-/alter-globalists.

To fully understand the challenges and opportunities of the GJM, I will draw on the series of interviews that I conducted with political actors (2006–2008) as part of my dissertation research. These semi-structured interviews with more than twenty activists, lobbyists and decision-makers provided invaluable accounts on the dynamics of power in the trade and investment policy sphere. I will build on these connections to contact and interview additional political actors involved in other advocacy networks such as consumer protection, development aid and climate mitigation.

Tentative book outline

This book will begin with a review of the literature on anti-/alter-globalization activism. The first chapter will construct the empirical and theoretical justification for a comprehensive and transdisciplinary study of the GJM in the United States that will seek to reconcile the social movement literature (and its recent outreach to the fields of International Relations and Global Studies) with the American Politics corpus on interest groups and political institutions. The second chapter will consist of a historical analysis on the origins of the contemporary debates on globalization. It will identify both the ideological and the organizational processes that shaped the development of the GJM. Following the steps of Aaronson (Aaronson, 2001). I will trace the roots of anti-/alter-globalization advocacy, by focusing not only on trade and investment, but also consumer and environmental protection along with development aid. This chapter will be followed by a discussion of the contemporary structure of the global justice movement, understood in its broad sense (McCarthy, Zald, 1977). I will illustrate the heterogeneity of the movement in two ways: first, by dividing the GJM into several interconnected policy spheres through network-mapping; and second, by drawing a distinction between “insiders” (i.e. Washington-based interest groups) and “outsiders” (loosely organized networks of activists or “social movement organizations”). The fourth chapter will consist of a detailed account of the recent advocacy campaigns undertaken by different segments of the US GJM, among which the mobilization for “fair trade” from the early debates on the NAFTA to the “May 10th Deal” (2007) between President Bush and the Democratic Congress, the student antisweatshop campaign of the late 1990s, the advocacy efforts of environmentalists on behalf of climate mitigation, the US NGOs’ activism for access to life-saving drugs in developing countries etc. The concluding chapter will summarize the key empirical and theoretical findings that emerge from chapter four and highlight the contributions of my transdisciplinary of analysis to the literature on anti-/alter-globalization activism.