- William Sloan Coffin, Jr.
Globalization is perhaps the central concept of our age. Yet, a single definition of globalization does not exist either among academics or in everyday conversation. There is also a lack of consensus as to whether or not globalization is a useful concept to portray current events. While most conceptions focus on different aspects of growing interdependence be it economic, cultural, technological, and the like, at a basic level globalization refers to growing interconnectedness.
Some certainly do reject the notion that we have entered a fundamentally new era. There are many, however, who see globalization as a genuine restructuring of social organization. Most definitions incorporate a notion of a growing magnitude of global flows such that one can truly speak of A global society. They find evidence that human activity has become interregional or intercontinental in scale. Although the globalization process is a long, historically rooted one, it is not without fits and starts and is not teleological. In short, globalization is a highly complex interaction of forces producing integration and disintegration, cooperation and conflict, order and disorder.
There is much debate and little consensus on whether globalization is a positive development. Recent popular titles on globalization, "Lexus and the Olive Tree" and "Jihad Vs. McWorld," attest to the seemingly contradictory unifying and divisive forces inherent in globalization. For some, globalization processes, on balance, represent a tremendous opportunity for prosperity, peace, and democracy. Others, by contrast, see greater potential for conflict, extreme self-interest, unbridled corporate power, and disregard for people and entire civilizations. The attacks of September 11 are perhaps the most dramatic evidence that people feel great unease about the forces of globalization and modernity. As a microcosm of the complexity of globalization, the motivation of the attackers may have been anti-modern and anti-globalization, the preparation and the attack itself were facilitated by globalizing processes. In reality, globalization has sparked unease and discontentment in a range of groups from all parts of the world.
This essay will provide a brief, and necessarily incomplete, overview of debates surrounding globalization as a source of and an antidote for conflict. The discussion will focus on economics, political authority, cultural impacts, and discontentment. These categorizations are clearly arbitrary, but given the interconnectedness central to globalization, fully disentangling different forces and processes is impossible.
For many, globalization is equated with economic interdependence. At the dawn of the 21st century, the scale and magnitude of global economic interaction appears to be unprecedented. The volume of capital flows far exceeds that of the past. The developing world, too, have increasingly become a part of global trade and capital flows. Contemporary patterns of economic globalization suggest the emergence of a new international division of labor. In short, the world has reached a stage in which one can meaningfully refer to one global economy.
Others present a more limited view. Current trends suggest economic and financial integration has proceeded only in a limited manner. Economic flows remain highly concentrated amongst the wealthiest countries. Within North America, Europe, and East Asia, contrary to the thesis that unfettered global capital will induce homogenization in policy, important differences in the structuring of economic life persist. Even multinational corporations, seen by many as the prime agents of globalization, remain tied in significant ways to their country of origin.
Debate has waged as to whether economic globalization will exacerbate economic inequalities and conflict or contribute to advancing the lot of the poorest relative to others. Studies have examined whether globalization processes have reduced or exacerbated wealth inequalities within developed countries and developing ones. While markets will produce winners and losers, liberals argue that the openness accompanying globalization will benefit all. Others see the potential to produce widening disparities. The short answer is that the effect of globalization has been both positive and negative and is dependent on a range of domestic and international factors. Extensive evidence also exists to support the claim that economic interdependence is related to more peaceful relations. States, for example, that trade more with each other are less likely to go to war. The direction of causation is less clear, however. In other words, does greater trade lead to peace or does peace lead to greater trade? The greater ties from interdependence have been argued to lead to both greater cooperation and conflict. The relationship is, in fact, most likely nonlinear.
Nation-states bypassed by globalization may resent the advancement of others. At the same time, many critics argue engagement in the global economy is exploitation in itself. For those who believe the nation-state is in retreat, the growing power of unaccountable market forces and international organizations provokes calls for change. Many NGOs (and global civil society more broadly) resist at least some aspects of globalization. Many social movements and NGOs seek to give ideas of human rights, environmental protection and the like equal footing with economic efficiency. One might divide them into those who seek a fundamental restructuring of the global system and those who want to reform the existing system. Reformers seek a more equitable distribution of wealth, attention to the plight to women, and addressing the global environmental crisis. More radical solutions would severely curtail market forces to prevent the unwanted effects of the global free market. However, the free-marketers, who see the benefits of greater interconnectedness, particularly economic openness, say anti-globalization protestors have misplaced their anger. Acording to globalization advocates, the problems identified by the anti-globalization movement arise from relying too little on markets and individualism, not too much.
The Nature of Political Authority
One important discussion surrounds whether the nation-state is obsolete as the best form of political organization. Economic and social processes increasingly cross borders making it increasingly difficult for states to control their territory, a central component of sovereignty. With respect to many contemporary issues, the nation-state no longer appears to be the most suitable level of decision making. As governance structures are established at the global level to deal with the growing number of global problems, conflicts have also emerged as to how to make international organizations more accountable and democratic.
Future of the Nation-State
Regardless of how historically fleeting or fictitious in much of the world, the model of the Westphalian nation-state is increasingly called into question. In economic affairs, with states reluctant to cede authority to international actors, some see economic processes out of control , leaving little option but to accommodate the forces of globalization. Mobile capital puts pressure on states to pursue neo-liberal policies and government spending is constrained to be more competitive. Transportation and communication advances make it easier for diaspora groups or others to organize and challenge state authority. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or the technology and expertise to construct them are a growing concern. Where states have collapsed and human rights violations rampant, the "CNN effect" has resulted in public pressure on other governments to intervene via peacekeeping operations. To deal with such developments, states have found it useful to construct international organizations and grant them significant decision-making authority. These organizations can at times provide a venue in which disputes can be peacefully adjudicated. What is more, a host of nonstate actors, whether al-Qaeda or Amnesty International or Microsoft, appear to have significant ability to shape state behavior.
For many, it is increasingly clear that real authority has been transferred to international organizations and other non-state actors. As such, this raises questions about how they may be made more democratically accountable. Intergovernmental organizations are increasingly important sites in which economic globalization is contested. Civil society groups have had a growing, yet uneven, effect on nation-states and international organizations. Non-governmental organizations make the claim that they should have a greater voice to put a check on national self-interest, dominance of the global North, and corporate greed they perceive to dominate the decision-making of most international organizations.  Many have pointed out, however, that civil society itself does not have strong claims to democratic authority. Speaking of a global civil society also masks significant differences between groups, such as whether they come from the global North or South.
Technology and Governance
Given the close relationship between globalization and technological innovation, research has also examined how new technologies will effect our notions of democracy and citizenship. On the surface, it may seem that these technologies would allow for greater information availability allowing the oppressed to rise up against authoritarian governments as well as allowing the disadvantaged to participate on a more equal footing in advanced industrial democracies. Recent scholarship, however, has taken issue with the assumption that these technologies are liberating. Some have pointed out that technologies make surveillance and control easier. What is more, even within the global North, access to digital technology remains highly uneven, and is becoming more so. In addition, the use of technology may run the risk of destroying social capital, which many see as a vital component of a vibrant democracy. Some argue that democracy requires shared experiences and, as the Internet allows us to become increasingly atomized, this will be lost. In fact, the Internet, and the proliferation of media in general, stifles debate by making it easy to customize the information we receive to our tastes, thereby making it easier to avoid views in opposition to our own.
Through the global media and communications technologies, virtually everyone on earth is exposed to foreign ideas and practices. Some argue that the scale of global communication and migration has begun to break down national identities. The emergence of NGOs and global social movements as important political actors provide further evidence for a new culture of global civil society.
For many, cultural globalization means Westernization or Americanization. An important distinction concerning today's cultural globalization is that it is largely driven by corporations, rather than countries. As such, one of the central concerns is the spread of consumer culture. For many critics, non-Western culture and practices are at risk of being overwhelmed by homogenizing "McDonaldization".
Skeptics contend that the erosion of culture has been overstated. They point to evidence that local culture remains strong. Cultural interactions have taken place for centuries so to argue non-Western cultures are somehow pristine is naive. In a normative sense, the cultural degradation argument dismisses the ability of non-Western people to control their destiny and incorporate those attributes they may find useful. What is more, some argue that national identities are founded on real differences that have continued salience.
Other skeptics point to the growth of ethnic and nationalist movements in the post-Cold War world as evidence that these sources of identity remain strong. Intense interaction may make people more cognizant of difference and lead to conflict. Information technology may, in fact, intensify traditional identities. Cultural globalization involves processes of unequal power, which brings traditions and identities into question. Where ethnic and religious groups feel threatened by globalization, there is the potential for conflict.
This discontent has gained renewed attention as some see globalization and modernity as a motivation for September 11. Since then, there has been increasing attention to Islamic fundamentalism. For some, the conflict is a long historical one between Muslim and Christian civilizations. As such, cultural differences are deemed to be highly resistant to change and increased interaction will produce conflict. Others see a more complex phenomenon. In the last twenty-five years, fundamentalist movements have emerged within virtually all of the world's major religions indicating a broader unease with the forces of globalization and modernity.
Migration is a significant aspect of globalization that has not only economic but also social and cultural effects. While migration is not unique to the present age, communication and transportation technologies allow migrants a greater opportunity to maintain links with their homelands. More porous borders raise questions about notions of citizenship and identity. While challenges to national identity may come from supranational entities such as the European Union, globalization at the same time may facilitate the triggering of more local, particularistic identities.
There is some disagreement on where this is all going and whether globalization could come to an end. Clearly the openness and interconnectedness that emerged in the late 1800s was not permanent. The 1930s saw the major powers carving out spheres of influence and blocking out others. From a broader historical perspective, however, that may have been a hiccup. Whereas before the end of the American Civil War it took months to go by ship from one coast of the US to the other, the transcontinental railroad cut the trip to a week by 1870 and today it is a matter of a few hours by plane. There was some discussion after 9/11 whether the need for security would bring an end to the era of globalization. In some areas, such as educational exchanges, there has been an impact. Overall, however, the flow of goods, people, and messages of peace and war continue unabated some four years later. In many respects, therefore, globalization is not going away. The challenge for humanity, then, is to direct these forces in peaceful and beneficial ways.
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Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Globalization." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/globalization>.