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Marina Whitman

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1986



Detroit

MARINA WHITMAN launches her discussion of the 21st century with the inbred caution of an economist making a forecast. ``The whole premise is impossible,'' she says with a smile over a tuna sandwich in her book-filled 14th-floor office in the stately old General Motors Building here. ``If you really knew what kind of knowledge or thoughts you were going to have in the future, you'd have them now.'' All she can do, she says, is to ``identify [some] contemporary trends and developments that seem to be threads in the fabric of the future.''

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For her, that translates into a single overriding issue governing all the items on the next century's agenda. She calls it ``a search for balance.''

In her view, the problems facing humanity deal less with black-and-white choices than with the need to subtly weigh alternatives. ``You give up resources of some things to get others,'' she says. ``Not that there are never synergies: There are. But there are also constant trade-offs.''

Dr. Whitman notes what she calls ``the catastrophic scenarios'' of a nuclear holocaust or a 14th-century kind of plague induced by AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). ``One has to dismiss those [scenarios],'' she says, ``not because they're impossible but simply because you can't say anything sensible about them, really.'' So, setting them aside, she turns to her first agenda item: the balancing between national identities and a worldwide market.

``One of the most obvious [trends],'' she says, ``is a very rapid global integration of markets - markets for goods, markets for services, markets for technology, markets for ideas.

``At the same time, as far as goods are concerned,'' she adds, there has been ``a certain erosion of national identity.''

As evidence, she cites the fact that ``it's getting harder and harder to tell what's an American car or a Japanese radio. It may be made by Motorola, [but] part of it was put together in Singapore and another part in Mexico, and it was finally assembled in the United States.''

Nevertheless, she says, ``There is still a very strong sense in people of nationalism, of a need for community. Nobody can quite deal with the global village as a community.''

The result is that ``there's a kind of a tension there. You have this global integration of everything, and you have at the same time a strong sense of nationalism in the populations of most, if not all countries.''

``I am an internationalist by training [and] by emotions,'' she says, ``and I have strong feelings about the need for international cooperation in the economic sphere. When I was very young I had the sort of internationalist visions that were very popular at the time - that you could kind of abolish national boundaries.''

Now, she says, ``I don't think that's such a terrific idea, because I think people do need some kind of framework and community.'' For that reason, she says, ``the nation-state has become a kind of logical focus.'' Free-market benefits ON the one hand, the thrust toward globalization has produced, in her view, solid benefits. ``There's no question that a lot of the rapid growth of world output and living standards in the postwar period was underlined by a progressive freeing up of markets and increases in international trade.''

But because of the countercurrent of nationalism, she says, ``there are always pressures to put up barriers to that global integration - whether they are trade barriers, or discrimination against foreign investors, or very restrictive immigration laws.''

``I think one of the things we're going to go into the 21st century with, somewhat unresolved, is this question of how you reconcile these in the optimal way,'' Whitman says. The goal, she adds, will be to ``reap all the benefits of global integration of markets - in terms of efficiency and consumer choice and the increasing incorporation of larger and larger parts of the world into this international interaction - and at the same time not interfere too much with people's sense of national identity.''

Closely related to that issue, and high on the agenda of items for the next century to deal with, is a second point: the growth of global competition. ``You have lots of new players in the game, and the cast of characters changes very fast,'' she says.