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The stormy battle over globalization that brought protests to the streets of Seattle and Washington moves this week to the heart of the world's only truly global organization, the United Nations.
An extraordinary, three-day summit meeting of more than 150 world leaders called to thrash out problems of poverty and peace is turning instead into a debate about the future of the organization, as well as the world, at a time when national boundaries have become nearly as irrelevant to economic and political tides as they are to infectious diseases or popular music.
The summit meeting, which will begin Wednesday and end Friday, is the pivotal event in a two-week, traffic-stopping extravaganza for New York that began last week with a conference of world religious leaders, an assembly of scores of speakers from nearly all the world's elected parliaments and a meeting of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations from every continent.
A dozen or more other events are planned for the fringes this week, including a "dialogue of civilizations" featuring President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, a "state of the world forum" of government and private sector leaders, numerous street protests and a 10-hour teach-in against a greater role for global business in world affairs.
The United Nations is a more diversified organization than those that have been the focus of recent protests -- the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.
So it is still seen as a hope for solving problems of globalization, rather than as a source of them, and it is not expected to be subjected to the same heated demonstrations that caused so much havoc in Washington and Seattle. Still, the debate over globalization will be intense.
At the United Nations, globalization means many things to many people. It is not simply the greater movement of goods, jobs and capital across borders, but also includes equally important cultural, environmental and political components.
For some countries, most in the industrial world, globalization is an opportunity to expand international standards in law, social development and human rights. For others, many of them developing countries, it holds out the worrying prospect of a United Nations aligning itself ever more closely with new power centers: the big corporations, high technology gurus and cultural icons of the industrialized world.
But unlike other summit meetings, the one here will give the fears and frustrations of the world's smallest and weakest nations equal time alongside the powerful, whose governments and -- increasingly -- corporations are feared for the influence they seem to be gaining inside the organization.
President Clinton, who will give the opening address and stay for three days, will be followed to the podium by the president of Equatorial Guinea. Russia's president will be followed by the leader of the Maldives, who likes to remind others that the big worry for his tiny nation of atolls is that globalization could mean disappearing completely -- if the warming of the world's climate is not halted.
"Globalization is seen by some as a force for social change, that it will help to close the gap between the rich and the poor, the industrialized north and the developing south," said Theo-Ben Gurirab, the foreign minister of Namibia and the General Assembly president for the last year.
"But it also is being seen as a destructive force because it is being driven by the very people, the colonial powers, who launched a global campaign of imperial control of peoples and resources in what we call now the third world. Can we trust them?"
Secretary General Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian with an American education who straddles two worlds, is at the center of the debate.
"Globalization is really defining our era," he said in an interview, explaining why he forged alliances with multinational corporations to improve labor and environmental standards as well as to bridge cyberspace gaps between the industrial and developing worlds.
He also warns political leaders that they have to govern well and learn to take advantage of international opportunities or their fragile economies are doomed. He argues that when citizens of any country are abused, the rulers can no longer tell others to stay out of their affairs.
"It's not that the secretary general is changing things too fast," Mr. Annan said, ranging over topics of relevance to the United Nations as varied as genetically modified foods or intellectual property rights. "The world around us is changing, and we change with it or we will be left behind. We have to adapt to the realities outside."
Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, said the organization cannot ignore economic changes at a time when government aid has shrunk and international organizations have to look for new sources of money.
"At the end of the day," he said, "everybody has to acknowledge that the primary source of finance for development is going to come out of the private portion of the global and national economy."
Within the United Nations system, some officials are concerned that overtures to giant corporations and multinational industries from the top of the organization will set the stage for problems at lower levels. There are rules of engagement for working with governments, one official said, but there are no guidelines for working with businesses or independent advocacy groups.
Powerful corporations, encouraged by an open door in the secretary general's office, have the means to introduce corrupt arrangements or to pay for special favors among lower-ranking officials, including the handing over of insider information like unpublished research findings, some United Nations employees fear. Such acts would be easier to conceal than overt pressure from governments, which is a constant problem in the organization.
Mr. Annan's "global compact" -- a program intended to enhance cooperation between the United Nations and private corporations on things like labor standards and the environment -- has drawn the strongest criticism from American groups opposed to globalization, among them the Transnational Resource and Action Center in San Francisco.
Its director, Joshua Karliner, said the image of the secretary general standing beside the top executives of companies with bad reputations in the developing world sent the wrong message about the United Nations, and could make it a target of protest.
Mr. Karliner's organization is part of the International Forum on Globalization, which is sponsoring the 10-hour teach-in at Town Hall in Manhattan, beginning at 1 p.m on Tuesday.
Debi Barker, deputy director of the forum, said in an interview that the teach-in follows similar events in Seattle and Washington, where the targets were the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. "The U.N., unlike the W.T.O., the World Bank and the I.M.F., was really created to be a space to promote peace, human rights, the environment, social justice, livelihoods and democracy," she said. "This is a worthy institution and these are worthy goals.
"We are concerned that things such as the global compact, encroaching its way into the U.N., means that the U.N. is being usurped a bit by corporations and by people who are driving this globalization agenda. We would encourage the U.N. to take the high road; keep to its mandate; separate itself from corporations and deal instead with citizens."
Carol Bellamy, the executive director of Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, said that in the confrontation over globalization there has been an unfortunate tendency to adopt extreme views about business and that these get in the way of exploring new ways of cooperating with the private sector.
Ms. Bellamy, a former American Peace Corps director and New York City politician, has been wrestling recently with critics who want the Children's Fund to break ties with international corporations contributing to the organization. "The world demands a more sophisticated response today," she said.
"An outright rejection of globalization is a head-in-the-sand approach," she said in an interview, adding that the goals of international aid organizations may often coincide, at least in part, with those of business.
"The business community needs peace to see economic growth," she said. "They need kids to be educated to be consumers and workers. The rule of law, good governance, is important for creating an environment that will probably also be good for investment."
Mr. Malloch Brown of the United Nations Development Program says the debate about globalization in richer countries clouds the fact that a significant number of political leaders and nongovernmental organizations in developing nations are not opposed to a more interdependent world economy. They just want to be part of it, and they want it to be more sensitive to the needs of those least able to compete.
Mr. Annan, responding to frustration about the pace and effects of globalization in the developing world, said he had asked the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development to work on ways to assist smaller nations in analyzing and simplifying complex economic and trade agreements so that they can benefit.
"It has been said that arguing against globalization is like arguing against the laws of gravity," Mr. Annan told the international conference of nongovernmental organizations last week. "But that does not mean we should accept a law that allows only heavyweights to survive. On the contrary, we must make globalization an engine that lifts people out of hardship and misery, not a force that holds them down."
The United Nations expects all the world's major powers to be represented at the summit meeting, and will make an effort to limit their formal speeches to five minutes each, with unlimited time for more informal talking later.
In addition to President Clinton, President Jiang Zemin of China will attend, as will President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, President Jacques Chirac of France and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.
Leaders of most African nations, including Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, will speak. President Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia is coming, as are Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat. Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, is also planning to come.
Shadowing the United Nations summit meeting will be the fifth annual State of the World Forum, a private gathering at the New York Hilton of more than 500 prominent figures in finance, labor, science and government. Speakers include Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the former Soviet president; Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa; Gen. Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the financier and philanthropist George Soros, and John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.
When the summit meeting ends, there will be commitments to some very ambitious goals, part of an action plan advertised on billboards around New York. World leaders will pledge to halve the number of the world's people who live on less than $1 a day. There are more than a billion of them. Almost an equal number -- many of the same people -- do not have access to clean water.
Their number should also be halved by 2015. By that year, leaders will pledge to have given all children a full primary school education. To show determination in the battle against H.I.V. and AIDS, the leaders will be asked to halt and reverse the spread of the disease by 2015.
- 101 Alliance for a Corporate-Free UN