Thursday, December 09, 2004

Making the World Safe for Globalization

In a previous entry, I broached the possibility that Thomas P.M. Barnett's The Pentagon's New Map might be a useful point of departure for a future global history of war conference. In this entry I'd like to start exploring that possibility more fully. The blog format doesn't really lend itself to extended discussions, so this exploration will be on the installment plan. (If you want to do a reconnaissance of your own, you can check out the reviews of the book, all of them reprinted, with Barnett's comments, on his web site.)

As I write this, I'm listening to a string of contemporary Middle Eastern musicians; e.g., Oum Kolsoum, Fairuz, and Khaled. Until a few hours ago I had heard of none of them, but their music now fills my office with flawless, digitized perfection. Of course, I haven't the slightest idea what they're singing about, but it's still way cool. More importantly, it makes me curious to know what they're singing about, and by extension, to know more about their cultures. This all comes courtesy of my broadband internet connection and a little phenomenon called globalization.

Globalization is quite the buzz word of the moment, but there's little agreement on what to make of it. Is it new? Many commentators talk as if it emerged only in the 1980s or 1990s; a few will push this back to the early 1900s. Those with a real sense of history see it as a process underway since the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of exploration around the Cape of Good Hope and, especially, to the Americas. True gamesters place its origins even earlier. Janet Abu-Lughod, for instance, sees a global system as operating in Europe, Asia and Africa as early as 1250.

Is globalization good? The question's pointless, of course, if you take the long view: it's like asking whether history is good. But if you're talking about the current wave of globalization, it makes a bit more sense to ask if it's a good thing--or more precisely, for whom. Some see it as little more than neocolonialism; others as a process that, overall, is beneficial for every society that becomes enmeshed with it. This latter was the assessment of Thomas Friedman in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, whose key argument was nicely summarized by Paul Krugman in a review for Washington Monthly:
Information technology, [Frieman] tells us, has made the world a small place, in which ideas and money can move almost instantly across borders. This smaller world richly rewards countries and societies that meet its needs--which is to say places that have strong property rights, open minds, and a flexible attitude; but it inflicts devastating punishment on those who fail to live up to global standards. Old-fashioned power politics is becoming increasingly obsolete because it conflicts with the imperatives of global capitalism. We are heading for a world that is basically democratic, because you can't keep 'em down on the farm once they have Internet access, and basically peaceful, because George Soros will pull out his money if you rattle your saber.
Krugman himself was skeptical about the accuracy of Friedman's analysis and the inevitability of this future (particularly whether it would play out in such a positive way). Friedman seems to have acquired a bit of skepticism himself after September 11. But it's this view of globalization that Barnett places at the heart of The Pentagon's New Map. With one key difference. Whereas Friedman saw the spread of globalization and its benefits as more or less automatic, Barnett sees it as contingent upon the willingness of the United States to safeguard globalization and ensure that its promise is realized.

For him, the great enemy of the United States nowadays is not a particular power or a group of people but rather a condition--"disconnectedness" from the beneficial and therefore stabilizing influence of globalization.

To be disconnected in this world is to be kept isolated, deprived, repressed, and uneducated. For young women, it means being kept--quite literally in many instances--barefoot and pregnant. For young men, it means being kept ignorant and bored and malleable. For the masses, being disconnected means a lack of choice and scarce access to ideas, capital, travel, entertainment, and loved ones overseas. For the elite, maintaining disconnectedness means control and the ability to hoard wealth, especially that generated by the exportation of raw materials.

If this disconnectedness is the real enemy, then the combatants we target in this war are those who promote it, enforce it, and terrorize those who seek to overcome it by reaching out to the larger world. Our strategic goals, therefore, are to extend connectivity in every way possible, but only in a manner that promotes justice as much as order. Because when we sacrifice, when we suffer, and when we die in this war, we must know that the good we promote is both immediate and lasting. Americans need the confidence of knowing that every difficult step we take represents forward progress on some level.

To that end, we need to understand what is really at stake here, which is nothing less than the future of globalization itself. You may say that globalization is not a goal or a strategy but simply a condition of the world we live in, and you would be right on many levels. But globalization is also a historical process, or something that is defined by a sense of momentum and purpose. Globalization has a past, which defines its limits, but likewise a future whose promise it must fulfill, otherwise it will become a spent notion in the minds of political leaders whose determined actions are required for its continued advance.
If globalization were to falter, the biggest loser would be the United States, not only because it has the world's largest economy but also because it embodies "the political idea most closely associated with globalization's promise and peril."

Whether we realize it or not, America serves as the ideological wellspring for globalization. These united states will stand as the first concrete expression. We are the only country in the world purposely built around the ideals that animate globalization's advance: freedom of choice, freedom of movement, freedom of movement, freedom of expression. We are connectivity personified. Globalization is this country's gift to history--the most perfectly flawed projection of the American Dream onto the global landscape. To deny our parentage of globalization is to deny our country's profound role as world leader over the second half of the twentieth century. More important, to abandon globalization's future to those violent forces hell-bent on keeping this world divided between the connected and disconnected is to admit that we no longer hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, and that all desire life, liberty, and a chance to pursue happiness. In short, we the people needs to become we the planet.
This is nothing if not idealistic, but I don't mind someone who takes ideas seriously. Still, one has to ask if Barnett's analysis of globalization is accurate or complete. In particular, does the success of globalization really require the intervention of a well-intentioned major power? And if so, is the sort of intervention Barnett has in mind appropriate and likely to succeed? Finally, what insights into all of these questions can be gleaned from history?

On the latter score, for instance, what are we to make of this illustration from Andre Gunder Frank's ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age?

(click map for closeup)

Here's a global system in which the world's largest economy is China. And of course everyone recalls the great Chinese fleets that roamed the world, policing and administering this system. Oh wait, maybe not. In any event, what illumination might this revisionist "new map" of the early modern world's global economy shed on "the Pentagon's new map," and vice versa? Is it in the nature of a cheap shot, or might reflection on these two maps yield something something worthwhile?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the opportunity to attend the recent conference at the Mershon Center. I learned a great deal and got to meet some of the people I had only seen on book titles. I appreciate it.

Jaron Bernstein