Mon, Apr 13, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The worst of all worlds

Globalization will not disappear with protectionism — it will just turn ugly

By Joseph S. Nye

During the Cold War, the global strategic interdependence between the US and the Soviet Union was acute and well recognized. Not only did it produce world-straddling alliances, but either side could have used intercontinental missiles to destroy the other within 30 minutes.

This was distinctive not because it was totally new, but because the scale and speed of the potential conflict arising from military interdependence were so enormous. Today, al-Qaeda and other transnational actors have formed global networks of operatives, challenging conventional approaches to national defense through what has been called “asymmetrical warfare.”

Finally, social globalization consists in the spread of peoples, cultures, images and ideas. Migration is a concrete example. In the 19th century, some 80 million people crossed oceans to new homes — far more than in the 20th century. At the beginning of the 21st century, 32 million US residents (11.5 percent of the population) were foreign-born. In addition, some 30 million visitors (students, businesspeople, tourists) enter the country each year.

Ideas are an equally important aspect of social globalization. Technology makes physical mobility easier, but local political reactions against immigrants had been growing even before the current economic crisis.

The danger today is that shortsighted protectionist reactions to the economic crisis could help to choke off the economic globalization that has spread growth and raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the past half century. But protectionism will not curb the other forms of globalization.

Modern technology means that pathogens travel more easily than in earlier periods. Easy travel plus hard economic times means that immigration rates may accelerate to the point where social friction exceeds general economic benefit. Similarly, hard economic times may worsen relations among governments, as well as domestic conflicts that can lead to violence.

At the same time, transnational terrorists will continue to benefit from modern information technology such as the Internet. And, while depressed economic activity may slow somewhat the rate of greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere, it will also slow the types of costly programs that governments must enact to address emissions that have already occurred.

So, unless governments cooperate to stimulate their economies and resist protectionism, the world may find that the current economic crisis does not mean the end of globalization, but only the end of the good kind, leaving us with the worst of all worlds.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University and was recently rated as one of the most influential scholars of the past 20 years by scholars of international relations.COPYRIGHT: PROJECT SYNDICATE

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