Making global connections

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

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...

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.

Just as globalization is shaking up world politics, so is it affecting the environment. Everyone knows the West worries that newly industrializing countries will pump more greenhouse gases into the air and cut down forests - things the West did, too, when no one knew about global warming.

And in an era where more people are making more contacts, viruses spread more easily. A dozen African nations have seen average life expectancy fall because of the rapid spread of AIDS. Last summer, the East Coast of America discovered mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus. "All of a sudden, cities all over New Jersey and New York were spraying for something they didn't worry about two years ago," says Joseph Nye Jr., dean of Harvard University's school of government.

Pushed along at light speed

If globalization isn't exactly new ("It's as old as history," Mr. Nye says), it's being pushed along at light speed, thanks to new communications technology. The Internet, for example, is linking the rural poor with experts in the cities and letting farmers find out the metropolitan price of their crops so they don't get taken by middlemen in the countryside. In one Indian village recently, when a cow was having trouble giving birth and the nearest veterinarian lived 20 miles away, the poor family that owned it logged onto the Internet and found the information it needed to save the cow and the calf, says Shashi Tharoor, director of communications and special projects for the UN secretary-general.

"All these kinds of things come at us faster than we can respond to them," says Bill Joy, chief scientist for Sun Microsystems. "These new technologies [will] produce thousands of trillions of dollars of new wealth - more than the Industrial Revolution did. It's a century where we can get beyond scarcity."

But there's a downside. Mr. Joy worries that techno-terrorists will use new technologies to sow havoc via the Internet. Even aboveboard uses of communications technology are creating unintended effects. Will they enhance cultural distinctions or bulldoze them with a hybridized Hollywood culture? "Cultural diversity is as essential as environmental diversity," says Queen Noor of Jordan.

"When you went to a [Pakistani] village in the 1970s, they had no idea how the wealthy lived," says Lester Thurow, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Today, they know. They're watching village televisions every night."

"The greatest challenge the world faces today is the growing chasm between the rich and the poor," adds former US President Jimmy Carter. In 1960, the 10 richest nations had 30 times the per capita gross domestic product of the 10 poorest nations, he points out. Today, they have 72 times the wealth of the poorest nations.

Such numbers don't tell the whole story. Even though inequality has grown, poverty has shrunk. According to the World Bank, the percentage of people below the poverty line dropped from 29 percent to 24 percent during the 1990s. Nor is the picture uniform among developing nations. East Asia, in particular China, has nearly halved its rate of poverty since 1990. Sub-Saharan Africa has barely fallen at all.

When Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of government, thinks about globalization, he doesn't imagine tumbling walls or speeding trains. He thinks about the boom in helicopters above Sao Paulo. The city's business elite have literally taken to the skies to go to work and even to shop. Those kinds of divisions between the wealthy and the poor erode civic life, he argues.

Equally worrying, he adds, the private sector is spilling into areas once considered the domain of government. Businesses now run prisons, display ads in public schools, and play an increasingly big role in healthcare. Sandel calls it the "commoditization of social life."

"There's a fundamental conflict between the ethos of family life and the ethos of work," says Richard Sennett, professor of history and sociology at New York University. Robert Putnam at Harvard University has found that the average citizen's community involvement has dropped 40 to 50 percent in the past 40 to 45 years. Americans eat a third fewer meals with their own families than in the 1970s.

So is the globalization cup half empty or half full? Perhaps it doesn't matter. We're all beginning to sip from the same cup anyway.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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