Sweet Talk
Paternalism and Collective Action in North-South Trade Relations
J. P. Singh



Without a sense of identity, there can be no real struggle.

Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education (1985: 186)

This book puzzles about trade reciprocity. It explores the conditions under which the trade concessions countries of the Global North–South make to each other deviate from reciprocity. The puzzle developed from two “real-world” prompts that made me reflect on identity issues underlying reciprocity. One was about a trade diplomat and the other about the marketplace, both about the Global South.

During 2006, I was a visiting scholar at the World Trade Organization in Geneva. An anecdote circulated about a trade diplomat from Sub-Saharan Africa who complained about not being invited to a particular meeting until the chair noted that he was sitting in the meeting from which he thought he had been excluded. Poor diplomat! He didn’t even know he was there. His nationality changed as I heard the story repeated but the identity affixed on him remained the same. That of not knowing, of incompetence.

Around the same time, back in the United States, struggles raged on how the developing world was pirating secrets, inventions, and creative digital works. It was even stealing outsourced high-tech jobs, grounds on which the United States had stood confident with its competitive advantage. Several xenophobic and racist comments circulated through the media. Poor developing world! It suffers even when it knows.

I resolved to write Sweet Talk—it would deal with an old conflict, sugar, and a new one, telecommunications or information technologies. As I researched, my ambitions both tamed and multiplied. Merely providing a structured, focused comparison of two issues was not going to be persuasive. I had to be thorough. This book, therefore, presents a history of North–South trade negotiations in the postcolonial era. In doing so, it addresses issues in agriculture, manufacturing, and high technologies. However, I retained the title Sweet Talk, which came from thinking about sugar and telecommunications.

I argue that the North paternalizes and gives little to the developing world at trade negotiations. The developing world is better off when it helps itself, either through collective action at negotiations, or best off when it diversifies its exports in products and markets. Although rooted in the political economy of trade, this is ultimately a narrative about cultural identities, which starts with a clash of civilizations, or at least one “civilization.” In the colonial days, the colonial powers set out to civilize the unenlightened other. In the postcolonial era, they benevolently dole out sweet talk, trade-capacity building assistance, and a few nonreciprocal trade preferences, while withholding on the meaningful trade concessions the developing world needs.

Empirically, the book employs mixed methods for providing evidence from several perspectives. The book develops an index for measuring paternalistic strength, and multiple regressions test the effects of paternalism and negotiation indicators on degrees of reciprocity. The official rhetoric of the United States in trade, specifically twelve years of press releases from the US. Trade Representative, is also analyzed using manual coding through NVivo content analysis software. Qualitative and historical descriptions trace the processes through which reciprocity works. The book narrates the North–South trade story in cultural terms and the rootedness of trade preferences in historically derived cultures; therefore, the book returns to colonial era history in a few places. Specific issue area cases—textiles, sugar, cotton, telecommunications, and outsourcing—provide a granular view.

Ultimately, the book is about the present, not the past. The WTO’s Doha Round of trade negotiations launched in 2001 is practically dead, and the future of multilateral trade negotiations and North–South interactions is unclear. Developed countries fear exports from emerging powers such as Brazil, China, and India and seek to exclude them from their preferential trade agreements. Outside of trade negotiations, in the post-9/11 era, many have asked in the West: Why do they hate us? This book explores the underlying cultural conditions in the rarified halls of trade diplomacy. If cultural clashes can happen there, they can happen anywhere.

In the last decade as I worked through the ideas for this book, I incurred many debts to students, friends, family, colleagues, and policy practitioners (not mutually exclusive categories by any means). I began conceptualizing the subject with a graduate seminar on “The International Politics of Race” when I taught at Georgetown University. It was one of the most intense courses I have ever taught.

Four years ago, I retrained myself in quantitative methods and went for two summers to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan. Several instructors and TAs—especially Bill Jacoby, Shawna Smith, Rebecca Grady, and Kelly Gleason—were remarkably helpful. They are people who believe in empirical data but think of quantitative analysis both as an art form and a science. I related to their worldview and empathized with the technique.

Margo Beth Fleming, my editor at Stanford University Press, persuaded me to place this book in my own series, “Emerging Frontiers in the Global Economy.” Her argument was that I would be making a credible commitment to the voice of the series with my own work. Instead of sounding like an easy bargain, her words put the pressures of academic branding in me! I hope the book helps to vindicate a few of these fears. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to have Margo’s guidance throughout the writing process, and I “dumped” my fears on her more than I would ever dare with another editor. I would also like to thank James Holt at Stanford University Press for his timely and perceptive assistance throughout the process, Margaret Pinette for careful copyediting, and Mariana Raykov for production assistance.

It takes several villages to write a book. I am thankful to many academic communities. Several colleagues provided feedback, and I am immensely grateful to them for engaging with my ideas. These colleagues include Susan Aaronson, David Armor, Jennifer Ashley, Renée Bowen, Dan Druckman, Manfred Elsig, Ben Graham, Surupa Gupta, Tamar Gutner, Virginia Haufler, Eric Helleiner, Tobias Hofmann, Niklas Hultin, Holger Janusch, Chris Kilby, Soo Yeon Kim, Mark Langevin, Laura Mahrenbach, Renée Marlin-Bennett, Aaditya Mattoo, Maximilian Mayer, Axel Michaelova, John Odell, Anh Pham, Peter Rosendorff, James Scott, Susan Sell, Gabriel Siles-Brügge, Paul Smith, Silke Trommer, Mayra Velez, and Bill Zartman. I extend a special thanks to my colleague Byunghwan Son for his incisive insights, for our lengthy conversations on international economics, and for being my Stata guru in the department. Two referees from Stanford University Press provided detailed and constructive feedback on each of the chapters and challenged a few precepts. This feedback was extremely important toward addressing loopholes in the book and for fleshing out unclear arguments. I am grateful to the referees for empathizing with my argument, while at the same time challenging me.

I also presented papers or chapters from this book at various conferences and academic seminars, and gained from these interactions. These include the American Political Science Association, the Du Pont Summit of the Policy Studies Organization, International Studies Association, Midwestern Political Science Association, Political Economy of International Organizations, and the Washington Interest in Negotiations. At George Mason University I benefited from two presentations to the brown bag seminar of the School of Policy, Government and International Affairs; the doctoral studies colloquium in the Cultural Studies Program; and a presentation to the faculty at the Global Affairs Program to help me address counterarguments.

The Emerging Frontiers in the Global Economy series promotes interdisciplinarity, methodological rigor, and accessibility. On the latter point, I presented my ideas at several undergraduate and graduate classrooms in the Washington, DC, area to discern students reactions. These institutions are George Washington University, the Global Politics Fellows at George Mason University, University of Mary Washington, and the University of Maryland, College Park. The students engaged passionately with the issues, and I would like to thank many for pursuing me with their questions inside and outside the classroom. My undergraduate honors seminars and graduate classes have heard several informal or formal presentations on this book. They have been some of my worst critics and best supporters. Daphne St. Jean’s research assistance in the early stages of the project was invaluable especially on the Freedom of Information Requests to the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office. I am grateful to USTR for timely compliance with my requests and for supplying large amounts of materials.

Thanks to two institutions for resources. Georgetown University, where I taught until 2012, allowed me to set up a graduate program in Trade, Technology and Development at the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva. The experience of taking my students every summer to Geneva and engaging with the community associated with the WTO and other international organizations was crucial for understanding the cultural gestalt conveyed in this book. George Mason, where I taught 2012–2016, and where I am currently on a leave of absence, provided research funds for me to undertake many tasks, including the ICPSR coursework and to learn NVivo. George Mason was also a perfect home for me to undertake the writing. This book’s ontology is situated in international liberalism, but I hope it comes with a critical consciousness, which borrows from many colleagues’ reactions to anything smacking of “neoliberalism.” My appointments at the interdisciplinary Global Affairs Program, the doctoral Cultural Studies Program, and the Schar School of Policy and Government allowed me to engage in differing perspectives as an everyday practice. As the book goes through the publication pipeline I look forward to my appointment as Chaired Professor of Culture and Political Economy and as the Director of the Centre for Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh. My new appointment provides further opportunities for analyzing cultural preferences and relations.

My partner Chuck Johnson is my rock. He has stood by me for every project, and provided me assistance with just about every page and piece of data. His support means the world to me. Chuck is my muse. There is another person who fills me with love for the world, and makes me smile. I learned my first lessons on fairness and justice from her. Chuck and I agreed that my mother would endorse the provocations in this book. Chuck and I, therefore, dedicate this book to my mother.

We all have our personal stories that make us think of the research questions and puzzles that we do and that motivate us to pursue our dreams. My experiences include both hope and distress. A steadfast belief in the world of scholarship is always the next step forward.