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Fintan O’Toole: Trump and Brexit are products of Sutherland’s success

As a father of globalisation Peter Sutherland leaves a problematic legacy

After Peter Sutherland successfully concluded the biggest trade agreement in world history in 1994, the US trade representative Mickey Kantor hailed him as "the father of globalisation". This was hyperbole, but the exaggeration was not gross. Sutherland is one of the very few Irish people who has ever counted as a world-historical figure. He drove deregulation in the European Union when he was commissioner for competition. He then surfed the wave of optimism about the opening-up of world markets after the fall of the Berlin Wall when, as chair of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) he steered the successful conclusion of its Uruguay round and established the World Trade Organisation. When the global history of the last 40 years is written, he will have an important place in it – a place he carved out with few tools other than his own extremely high abilities.

Yet if he is indeed to be remembered as the father of globalisation, we cannot avoid the truth that his is a troublesome and deeply troubled child. If he is to be credited with making a key contribution to economic growth in the late-20th and early-21st centuries, the debit side must also be acknowledged. For no one personified quite as clearly as he did the two sides of neoliberal globalisation: its phenomenal energy and its terrible destructiveness.

John Bruton, in a fine tribute to his friend in Monday's Irish Times, wrote that "Taming nativist and nationalist trends was a daily battle of Peter's life." If so, it is a battle he can hardly be said to have won. The nativist uprisings that now threaten the very existence of liberal democracy are not mere reactions to the kind of globalisation that Sutherland did so much to drive forward. They are products of it. If, as he did, you tie globalisation to a feral form of finance capitalism, you build into it the gross inequalities and the profound instabilities that undermine the democratic bargain. Much as he was disgusted by them, there is a sense in which Donald Trump, Brexit, Victor Orbán and Marine Le Pen are his children too.

Wealth for super-rich

The form of globalisation that Peter Sutherland did so much to unleash has created vast new wealth. But the key question has always been: for whom? Especially in the West, the answer has been clear – for the super-rich. Since Sutherland’s Gatt triumph in 1994, the amount of wealth held by the tiny elite of global billionaires has risen from less than a trillion dollars to six trillion dollars. The richest 1,500 people now control more wealth than the gross domestic product of any EU country.


A large part of this process has been the monstrous growth of finance capitalism – and Peter Sutherland never flinched from lending his brilliance, his prestige and his authority to protecting the banking system from all demands for accountability and moderation. He played an important part in the development of the banking culture that proved to be so catastrophic for Ireland. He was chairman of Allied Irish Banks from 1989 to 1993, and president of the Irish Bankers’ Federation. He did effectively nothing when he learned that the bank had facilitated the large-scale evasion of Dirt tax by its customers. As he explained to the Dáil’s public accounts committee (PAC): “The issue of non-resident accounts and Dirt was an issue which was essentially one for management. Management, as I understand it, believed that the issue was under control.” When the PAC investigated the scandal, he stood over his own refusal to take action, even with the benefit of hindsight: “If I were to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change one iota of the steps that we took.” It is not surprising he strongly opposed the idea of holding any public inquiry into the collapse of the Irish banks in 2008.

Banking role

He was a director of the disastrous Royal Bank of Scotland from 2001 to 2009 when it went rogue. RBS eventually had to be bailed out to the tune of £45 billion by the British taxpayer. He was on the RBS renumeration committee that set vastly inflated levels of pay for its management, including a notorious £17 million pension for its chief executive Fred Goodwin. He was chairman of Goldman Sachs International when the firm helped the Greek government hide a large chunk of its debts. Gordon Brown accused Goldman Sachs of "moral bankruptcy" for its decision to pay out bonuses of $5.4 billion (€4.2 billion) less than two years after it had to be bailed out by the US taxpayer.  All of this was, of course, a gift to the far-right opponents of immigration when Sutherland became such an eloquent and passionate advocate for the refugees fleeing Syria into Europe. Look, they could say, it is all part of the same globalist conspiracy run by the international financial elite. They were wrong – Sutherland's advocacy was humane and sincere. He was, in his own way, coming to terms with the reality that globalisation must be about little lives as well as big forces. But the fact that they could use him so conveniently to make those false connections showed the deep ambivalence of his legacy.