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Making global connections

It's one world, and we all know it. The challenge is to find outwhat it means in our daily lives.

By Laurent Belsie Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 28, 2000


After watching the hapless Navy fail to rescue their comrades in a sunken submarine, Russians begin criticizing the nation's popular president for his slow response to the crisis...

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Bowing to economic self-interest, the United States Senate votes to normalize trade relations with China...

A televised tape of his intelligence chief apparently making a bribe forces Peru's autocratic president to call new elections in which he will not run...

Three disparate events, but one theme. Globalization - the nearly unstoppable spread of markets, ideas, and communication technology - is weakening governments, leveling trade barriers, and empowering corporations and activists with the speed and force of a tidal wave.

Some observers call globalization the new world system that has washed away the cold war order. Perhaps not since the Industrial Revolution has a spurt of globalization carried such huge, exciting, and unsettling implications. The question is what to do about it.

Should humanity let it run its course, slow it down and redirect it, or try to stop it altogether? For four days last month, a wide range of academics, government officials, three former presidents, and a queen descended upon the Aspen Institute here in Colorado's Rocky Mountains to ponder the next step. Their conclusion (despite many dissenters): Globalization can't be stopped, but it needs a new direction and safeguards.

"Globalization is a force for good," sums up Olaru Otunnu, United Nations undersecretary general for children and armed conflict. "It offers the prospects on a dramatic scale for global connectedness. It also offers the possibility of a liberating force ... organizing [people] in ways that dictatorial government cannot control. The big question is what we do with [its] wealth and technology."

Up to now, the debate over globalization that sent protesters into the streets of Seattle, Philadelphia, and other cities, has centered on economics. In fact, globalization reaches far beyond that. "We haven't understood what game we're playing because we have focused almost exclusively on its economic effects," says Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

If the Berlin Wall symbolized the cold war order, "the central logic of the new system is the Web," says Thomas Friedman, columnist and author of "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," a recent book on the subject. "It's a symbol that we are all connected and nobody's in charge."

A minor crisis can go global

The clearest inkling that something had changed came in late 1997, when problems in Thailand's banking system sparked a currency crisis that spread to the rest of Asia, Russia, very nearly engulfed Brazil's economy, and bankrupted a US hedge fund. What started as a relatively minor crisis in a relatively minor economy quickly became an international scare.

The financial crisis became a political challenge when the International Monetary Fund stepped in. For centuries, beginning (arguably) with the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century and lasting through the cold war, the nation-state and its right to self-determination have been central to diplomacy. Nations could go to war, the theory went, but they were never supposed to mess around in each other's domestic affairs. But now, in the wake of a financial crisis, unelected bureaucrats at the IMF were telling democratically elected governments what policies to change.

That image galvanized protesters in Seattle during world-trade talks. (See story, top right). But the breadth of globalization's challenge to political norms doesn't fit easily on a protest placard. When NATO bombed Serbia last year for human-rights violations against its own people, it further challenged the principle of noninterference in domestic affairs. Can national self-determination survive the challenges or will globalization push human rights to the fore?

"The Westphalian principles may have come to an end with the end of the cold war," says Theo Sommer, editor at large of Die Zeit, a respected weekly German newspaper.

"We do have the power and capacity to shape this system of globalization," adds Mary Robinson, UN high commissioner for human rights and former president of Ireland. And "human rights are deeply relevant, not least in providing increasingly effective rules of the road."

Sometimes, globalization enhances democracy, argues Mr. Friedman, the author. The economic havoc caused by East Asia's currency crisis, for example, toppled entrenched regimes in South Korea and Indonesia, and replaced them with leaders far more democratic. But the principles of political change remain haphazard.