SwitzerlandDays of speeches at the World Economic Forum here and at the
counter-gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil, about the benefits and evils of
globalization benumb the brain. Has globalization triumphed? Is it threatened by
a backlash of which demonstrations and their suppression are the precursors? Or
is everyone thinking at cross-purposes?
Is the globalization divide just a replay
of the North-South debate of two decades ago? Or perhaps yet another divide is
emerging, with most of Asia opting out of what it sees as an acrimonious
ideological debate that slows progress on pragmatic trade issues.
In one corner are those who seem to
believe that globalization is an ideology to be preached rather than the
consequence of other, mostly beneficial forces - technological change plus the
efforts of major countries to reduce barriers to movement of goods, money and
ideas. They are under the illusion that it is new, but globalization has been
proceeding in fits and starts, with occasional major setbacks, for centuries.
Nor is it measured by Internet penetration.
Many assume that globalization represents
the triumph of the market, without stopping to think of how every nation, not
least America, in practice views the market as a tool, not an ideology, which
domestically is submitted to a moral and income distribution framework
determined by society.
In the other corner are those who
complain bitterly about all manner of evils that they attribute to
globalization. These critics are divided between those in rich countries who
fear its impact on them and those who attack it because it is, sometimes with
good reason, passing them by. If they get beyond anger they often end up
proposing solutions in line with the liberalization that contributes to
Both sides fall into the trap of assuming
that human forces or policies can be detached from geography. No set of people
or policies will turn Rwanda into Singapore. It may be "unfair" that countries
with easy sea communications, such as those in East Asia and coastal China, can
take advantage of specialization of production more easily than inland ones.
How much effort should be made to
redistribute so as to compensate for disadvantage is a matter discussed at the
national level but seldom at the global one. But in the absence of global
government, to throw around emotive words like "immoral" to describe the gap
resulting from progress in some countries and lack of it in others is insulting
to those who progress.
What most of the world needs now is not
more emotional hand-wringing by the West or empty threats from the poor. It
needs developing nations to press much harder on specifics: for the abolition of
iniquitous agricultural export subsidies that are costing billions, for freer
market access for items like textiles, for a rethink of intellectual property
rights, and for more freedom of movement of people.
Western advocates of developing
countries' interests tend to focus not on these domestically sensitive issues
but on easy ones like debt write-offs for some of the poorest countries. The
debt relief campaign waged by the British group Jubilee 2000 has been remarkably
successful, with bishops and pop singers eager to support this show of concern
for the poor. There was no domestic lobby against it, as no one wants to be
against write-offs when debts are unpayable. But in practice the write-off means
diverting scarce aid resources away from poor countries which have used aid
effectively to those which have not.
Likewise, many, especially in the
developing countries of the East, view Western attacks on multinationals and
globalization as manifestations of a new protectionism emerging under the
banners of Western advocacy groups such as Amnesty International, which
criticize foreign investments in countries which fail to meet their values.
Those civil society groups in the West
which push for the inclusion of environmental, labor and human rights issues in
decisions of the World Trade Organization are viewed in the East as
protectionists. They will get shorter shrift once China is inside that body.
The annual Davos meeting may have become
too glitzy and too Western oriented for the good of the world that it is trying
to improve. If fewer subjects and more countries were represented and the
gathering concentrated on hard core economic and geopolitical issues, there
would be less cause for resentment. There might also be less posturing and more
progress toward the global utilitarian goal of bringing the greatest good to the