Grappling with Globalization

Working in a foreign ministry is as good a place as any, and better than most, to observe the world in transition.  I did it for 28 years. From that vantage point, it was near impossible to avoid thinking about why diplomacy has been performing so dismally, especially in recent years when diplomats have been sidelined, and departments of defence favoured as the international policy instrument of choice.

In trying to assess the crisis of diplomacy, I was led repeatedly to the same observation. Simply put, many of diplomacy’s failings can be attributed to its failure to adapt effectively or well to the challenges of the globalization age.

As a result of that early finding,  readers will notice that many of the constructs which support the arguments presented in Guerrilla Diplomacy are based upon my understanding and analysis of the paramount features of the phenomenon popularly referred to as globalization. But, what, exactly,  is that?

Globalization is both over-used and under-appreciated. It also a highly contested term, and has been ascribed a variety of different meanings. At the highest level of apprehension, globalization can be thought of as the successor era to that of the Cold War.

Yet that would be too easy. Globalization is clearly more than that. I would define it as a totalizing historical force which is conditioning, if not determining outcomes across a broad range of human enterprise. Among its effects and at a planetary level, globalization tends to integrate economically, fracture politically, polarize socially and homogenize culturally. It is multifaceted, vexing, and above all, enormous. Might I venture to say that from both practical and ideational perspectives, globalization is the dominant theme of our times.

But its essence cannot be captured in a single narrative.

Images of Nike, Mercedes, McDonalds and Clinique are only the tip of the iceberg. Globalization compresses space, accelerates time, and has unleashed a hornet’s nest of threats and challenges, many rooted in science and driven by technology. A sampling would include:

  • climate change
  • pandemic disease
  • environmental collapse
  • genomics
  • weapons of mass destruction

This catalogue demonstrates that globalization has framed and populated the contemporary  international policy agenda. These issues, moreover, differ in kind from the territorial disputes, ideological rivalry, military confrontation and competition for client states which were the hallmarks of the Cold War.

But even all of this is only a very small part of the story. Like a scythe, globalization  cuts all ways, bringing comfort, choice, power and influence to a few, and hardship, constraints,  anger and resentment to many.

For the beneficiaries, globalization contributes to prosperity and capital accumulation.

For those lost on the periphery or trapped on the underside – at any level and in any location –  globalization can breed insecurity, exacerbate inequality and abet undervelopment.

Globalization has on balance been good for corporations and bad for governments. It jeopardizes fragile states and increases the liklihood of their failure. The backlash against globalization has contributed to violent extremism, often religiously affiliated, world-wide.  It is percieved in many places as the latest incarnation of something more familiar, empire.

Absent the institutions of effective global governance, globalization will remain largely beyond the purview of either popular sovereignty or the public interest.

Like so much else in life, then, where you stand on the question of globalization depends in large part upon on where you sit.

In the midst of the worst international economic downturn since the Great Depression, it would be tempting to conclude that the age of globalization is over.  Indeed, many have. Yet that kind of conclusion would be based upon a relatively narrow understanding of the term, one rooted mainly in observations about trade liberalization, investment flows, resource prices and other, for the most part  macro-economic indicators.

Even by those criteria, I would hesitate to subscribe to the “end of globalization” thesis.  These sorts of measures are highly variable, and in the overall scheme of things, these are early days still. Reports of globalization’s passing are at best premature.

Staggeringly complicated and  immensely consequent, globalization may be  down, but it is far from out.

The implications for security, development and diplomacy, as we shall see, are far-reaching.