The impact of global activism against trade liberalization is examined in this article through an analysis of the initiatives of cross border civil society networks and with particular attention to the failed 2003 World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference in Cancun. Key aspects considered here include the internal dynamics of mobilization – which was characterized by a strong framing and widespread protest – and the political opportunities in WTO negotiations, which were marked by divisions within the North and resistance by a large group of Southern governments. In the failure of the WTO Millennium Round in Cancun and the loss of momentum of its liberalization agenda, a significant role has been played by civil society activism and its ability to combine protest, well-prepared lobbying, an epistemic-like community able to influence public opinion, and the development of alliances with like-minded governments of the South.
Developments since the 1999 Seattle WTO ministerial have shown that civil society activism on trade has the ability to slow down trade liberalization.
Global activists should be aware that their campaigns may not be sufficient to prevent trade agreements but, as the events surrounding the 2003 WTO ministerial in Cancun have shown, they can ‘tip’ the outcome towards failure of the negotiations.
The case of Cancun illustrates a key strategy for achieving that result: building strategic alliances with like-minded governments of the South.