Surfing Over Others' Turf

Want a sample of the New World Order? Just recall last week's World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle and the topsy-turvy line-up of players:

Local police, backed by the National Guard, battled protesters who demanded that a global institution, in a meeting hosted by the United States, respect the will of national governments by acting on global issues such as local environmental rules.

Phew! No wonder not much got done. Who can tell the difference between globalization and localization these days? Lines of authority and responsibility are becoming blurred as old certainties fade.

Nation-states are giving up powers to international bodies or having them taken away. The Internet and other high-tech advances are distributing power to individuals and creating cyber-communities. The rapid movement of international capital can make or break a nation with the click of a mouse. Cultural invasions, from Harry Potter to Pokmon, are creating a global mass-think. The four international organizations designed to bring about world peace - the WTO, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank - are all in an identity crisis.

In the US, too, it's getting difficult to tell who's taking the lead. Globalization and skepticism toward Washington have sent civic-minded locals hunting for local solutions.

Consider youth crime. Congress failed to pass a juvenile justice bill this year, but cities from Stockton, Calif., to Tallahassee, Fla., now have programs to give youths a stake in their communities, keep them in school, and heighten respect for the law.

Political reform, too, has local champions. Campaign finance changes met a stone wall in the US Senate, but Orange County, Calif., for example, limits the amount that party-affiliated organizations can spend to influence county elections and ballot measures. A number of cities within the county have taken similar stands to curb "soft money." Nationwide, some 75 cities have enacted contribution and spending limits.

On tobacco and gun control, many cities and states are way ahead of the federal government. And the Rehnquist Supreme Court is slowly shifting power back to the states.

Sometimes local activism can be both creative and problematic. In the absence of overarching federal legislation, for instance, municipalities face the complexities of managing broadband Internet access in their local markets. Cities have a key role, since historically they've been able to grant monopolies to cable TV companies, and cable firms will be big players in Internet access. Phone companies and Internet service providers like America Online are also very much in the picture. All are jockeying for position.

It's unlikely local governments, alone, can bring much order out of the chaos, and, with e-commerce burgeoning, they could easily run afoul of Congress's constitutional mandate to regulate commerce among the states.

It's possible some localities and states have already tripped over a constitutional line by slapping sanctions on companies that do business with objectionable foreign governments, such as Burma. The Supreme Court will soon decide whether these local forays into foreign policy encroach on Washington's turf.

Local activism, like all political activity in the US, needs to stay within constitutional boundaries. And while local, participatory democracy is generally admirable, it is sometimes dominated by a small, highly motivated fraction of a community amid a sea of apathetic voters. That can often lead to trouble.

Governmental authority rests on consensus and agreement among people. But as people become more empowered through wealth, technology, laws, or education, they often redefine authority and sovereignty, creating new communities and interdependence.

Americans can take heart that so many people are ready to tackle global institutions, improve schools, reduce the influence of money on politics, get a handle on urban sprawl, or address matters from the global to the local.

The violence by some protesters in Seattle teaches us that redefining authority - or the forming of a new consensus - can easily get out of hand.

And as lines between levels of government and institutions are redrawn, we can rely even more on that ultimate base of sovereignty, the individual's conscience, and his or her natural inclination to embrace others in peaceful, new communities.

It's now easier to find common values that cross the boundaries of nations and civilizations. But it takes hard work to ensure those new bonds lead to everyone being treated with equal worth and dignity.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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