Since about the 16th century, a form of globalization has been in full swing. Trade, conquest, and information exchange has simply increased since then, as Portuguese and Dutch trader's exotic 16th century travels has now become the stuff of today’s spring break vacations.
But it is difficult to talk about globalization when the term is so fuzzy. I’d like to suggest two dimensions to globalization. One is the increased trade of goods, services, and information that spills across national boundaries like trade winds. The other is the construction of agreements and institutions to give a structure to this reality. Call the first globalization flows and the next globalization structures.
At this point, it is hard to imagine anything short of a catastrophe limiting globalization flows. It takes far less imagination to envision hiccups, disruptions, and derailing of the process of globalization structures.
In this country, conservatives and liberals are united in their fear of globalization flows as a force that will erode national autonomy. For liberals, globalization threatens a return to the days before Teddy Roosevelt when labor and the environment lay unprotected from the rapacious advances of robber barons. For conservatives, globalization means that the US will be like Europe, our masculine independence threatened by blue helmeted troops more inclined to act like bureaucrats than cowboys. Some conservatives even see the emergence of global institutions as heralding the coming apocalypse.
American fundamentalists are not the only ones who see globalization flows as a threat. It is no coincidence that Al Qaeda terrorists brought down the World Trade Center Towers. Trade brings with it strange customs and ideas that defy regional cultures. The Renaissance and Enlightenment were led by communities active in trade; along with the taste for foreign products came openness to foreign ideas. Local clerics, just as much as local merchants, could be put out of business by foreign trade. If Al Qaeda could disrupt world trade, they might succeed at protecting their daughters from the bump and grind of hip hop, their sons from the allure of materialism.
For now, globalization structures have been largely left to the institution best suited to the realities of globalization flows – the modern corporation. And the corporation has seemed to do the most to define the globalization structures. The WTO, GATT, IMF, and the World Bank regulate globalization flows in ways that seems to most clearly benefit corporations.
Many people forget that one of the key motivators for the emergence of the modern nation-state was the gain in trade. In 1550, a European trader would literally pay tolls about every six miles. Nation-states created a huge free trade zone that encouraged trade and specialization - two boons to productivity. Globalization structures is similar in that it suggests the creation of institutions that do for world trade what the nation-state did for "national" economies.
But done wrong, globalization structures could be a realization of the fears of liberals and conservatives alike. If these institutions are lackeys to the corporation, they could indeed become an instrument for direct attack on the progress of labor unions and environmental activists, a race to the bottom for wages, benefits, and regulations. Conservatives fears of a loss of autonomy, an inability to stand up against countries with different traditions and values, could also be realized. But done well or done poorly, globalization structures is a deed that must be done. To ignore the importance of these institutions is to ignore the degree to which globalization flows can destroy or build communities.
The reality is that we live on a globe and the use of nation-states is a convenience, a tool to improve quality of life. Ideas like Sweden, South Africa, and Canada are social constructs. Greenhouse gases may emerge from a particular national economy, but they disperse perfectly throughout the atmosphere. Terrorist’s cells may meet in a particular country, but their ideology - like McDonald's - is not constrained by national boundaries.
The nation-state has evolved since the time of Louis XIV. Advances like human rights, environmental protection, and worker rights need to be built on, not crowded out as the work of globalization structures takes places.
The good news is the bad news. We’ve entered a phase of human history when no community can be isolated from this simple truth – we live on a globe and share a fate. Institutions that pretend otherwise are institutions that will become increasingly ineffective.