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Toward a new globalisation

In Business and Environment, Community and Relationship, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by David ScheelLeave a Comment

Whether we like it or not, globalisation is the watchword which defines international economics. The world’s population may be careering toward 7 billion, but in capitalist terms it is becoming a smaller place, and this will create new challenges for both established economies and emergent nations.

In particular, it will be the west’s moral responsibility to ensure that the world’s poorer countries are permitted a fair slice of the cake, for if this does not happen the gulf between haves and have-nots – already too wide – will become unbreachable, and entire countries could become totally destabilised.

If that moral and economic duty of care rests with the developed world, then it is a given that leadership should come from the most powerful western nation, namely the USA. However, this flies in the face of current thinking in Washington, where ‘globalisation’ seems to be viewed as nothing more than a synonym for ‘Americanisation’.

The most trenchant critic of American foreign policy is Professor Noam Chomsky, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Failed States, Chomsky informs us that the US has established American-style radio stations in Iraq, blaring out pop culture and promoting such un-Iraqi things as fried chicken and hamburgers. He further says: “The United States…opposed a UN treaty to protect and promote cultural diversity” debated by UNESCO, and, in the same paragraph, the United States “stands almost alone in opposing international supervision of the Internet, insisting that governance must be solely in the hands of the United States”. Given that the Internet is the most immediate, and fastest growing, communication system in human history, and the source of so much instant information (accurate or otherwise), that its control should be a monopoly is downright dangerous. Furthermore, it would do America well to realise that what it regards as culture should only have saturation relevance within its own boundaries. The US may be the richest and most powerful country on earth, but it is still only about 300 million people, or 5 percent of the world total, and for such a small percentage to impose its cultural will on the entire planet – even to the point of undermining endemic cultures – is arrogant to the point of stupidity, and in the end it can only bounce back on the USA.

This becomes even more apparent when we consider that the USA, particularly under President Bush II, but also historically, has a tendency to ride roughshod over internationally constituted institutions, including some largely of its own making. It has not signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, consistently rejects World Court orders, exempts its military from prosecution (a sort of ‘we can kill Milosevic, but he can’t kill us’), flouts the Geneva Convention at Guantanamo Bay, and in recent times has even undermined whatever vestige of authority that still rested with the UN, when, had it behaved as a responsible, global citizen, it should have used its muscle to reinvigorate the UN, and bolster its authority.

In saying this I am not climbing aboard some fashionably anti-American bandwagon. Having spent a substantial part of my life in that country, I find much more to admire than not. It is all too easy to judge America by its outward and blatantly consumerist symbols, such as Coca Cola and McDonald’s, but the US is a far more complex beast, and nowhere more so than in the seeming dichotomy between individual Americans and the nation’s collective consciousness.

Individually, it would be difficult to find friendlier or more generous people anywhere in the world – enterprising, clever, inventive and imbued with a sense of conscience. Yet, taken as a whole, the American public can act in ways which are the polar opposite of the American person. When Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre delivered the famous radio-play version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, in 1938, Americans took it seriously. They truly thought the Martians were invading, and began to evacuate their cities. It is difficult to imagine this happening in any other civilised country.

This kind of collective naïveté – gullibility even – goes a long way toward explaining why Americans are so insular, and appear to have little or no knowledge of countries or cultures beyond their borders. Perhaps this is why corporate America constantly imposes its set of values upon other nations. Thus the road from Bucharest’s Otopeni airport to the city centre has been renamed McDonald Drive (in English, not even Bulevard McDonald as it would be in Romanian). So too the road from Cairo airport. Another McDonald Drive (in English, not Arabic, and one can only wonder at what sort of palm-greasing led to these re-christenings).

Those two examples are of course representations of the ugly face of globalisation, and there are plenty more. In June, 2005, there were 42 Wal-Mart shopping centres in China. Today there are more than 100, and Wal-Mart is now China’s sixth largest trading partner. This is staggering if we remember that Wal-Mart is a company, not a country. That a single company could engage in more two-way trade with China than an entire country such as our own (or France, or Italy, or Indonesia, or all four put together) is a very sobering comment on both the USA’s economic dominance, and, for that matter, its marketing expertise.

However, it is to China – and India – that we must turn if we want to see how globalisation will develop in the near future, and all the indications are that the United States will have to initiate a serious reassessment of both its political and corporate strategies if it is to remain a major player in the world economy. This is particularly critical because the world needs the US economy to be robust, even if many people – and indeed entire nations – presently view the US with suspicion. (A recent poll of 160 countries revealed that the two ‘most trusted’ were France and China, and the two ‘least trusted’ were the USA and Russia!)

The most visible indicator of how things may pan out is the present state of global oil supply. The world oil boom may have started in Texas in the middle of the 19th Century, but the popular belief that the USA has exhausted its reserves is a fallacy. The US still extracts 7.45 million barrels of crude oil per day, placing it third in world rankings, behind only Saudi Arabia (9.82 million barrels) and Russia (8.54 million).
Yet the USA is still a net importer of oil, principally from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and neighbouring Canada. However, if we put things into perspective, Iraq’s production is only 1.34 million barrels daily, and Canada’s 2.99 million.

China and India are also net importers of oil, even though, like the United States, both countries have oil reserves. India only produces 793,000 barrels per day, but China produces 3.4 million barrels, only fractionally behind Iran.

Both India and China are undergoing the equivalent of the 19th Century European Industrial Revolution, and their greed for fossil fuel, especially oil, is insatiable. This means that, with world oil supplies now beginning to dwindle, it is a seller’s market. Oil producers can sell to the highest bidder, or else to the most politically attractive, and for many of those producers, the USA is viewed as a hostile state. This is especially true of the Middle East. At present the US may have control of Iraq’s oil, but that could change very quickly if the new, post-Bush administration, whether GOP or Democrat, decides to pull troops out of the region (which it almost certainly will, the only difference between political parties being the timeframe).

This would leave the USA friendless amongst almost all Middle Eastern oil producers, and there is no love lost between America and other major players, either, such as Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia (to some extent), and, famously, Venezuela. Why would President Chavez want to export oil to America when the CIA has twice tried to dethrone him?

Even the Canadians are not a certainty. The present Canadian administration is very pro-Washington, but historically the Canadians have regularly held their large neighbour at arm’s length. A different political scenario in Ottawa could well see Canada switch its economic allegiance from the USA to the burgeoning markets in China and India, and in fact our own country has already done so. Five years ago the USA was our second largest export market, after Japan. Today Japan is still the leader of the pack, but China has now overtaken the US, and on current trends, India will shunt America into fourth place within a year or two.

Furthermore, countries such as China and India are themselves looking to further ties with western countries other than the USA, notably the European Union. Trade with the EU does not come with strings attached, whereas it often does with the US, as we see if we examine the various ‘Free Trade Agreements’ that country has signed up. Almost all, including our own, have effectively enshrined a one-way traffic zone which sees the US profiteering at the expense of its ‘free trading’ partner.

All of these indicators suggest that the world as a whole is in fact beginning to put the brakes on globalisation, at least in its present form, and reaching for a more diverse trading system, in which there are more players, and more checks and balances on the existing dominance of just a handful of national economies.

We should encourage this diversity, for surely the best scenario for globalisation is one in which the better, more desirable elements of both western and eastern cultures can engage in a kind of fusion which would also remove the worst excesses from each. Thus the American influence would be something more substantial and responsible than a mere blanket marketing of US consumerism, and also something more reactive to, and appreciative of, the multi-faceted cultures of the non-western world.

Flipping the coin, the West could exercise its considerable clout to persuade the newly dominant economies to temper certain practices which can only be deemed abhorrent. China presently executes more people than any other country in the world, and its legal system is fraught with anomalies and anti-democratic legislation. It also cuts the paws of black bears in the name of medicinal cures that have no basis in scientific fact. India had 44 million child labourers, and countless beggars, many of whom have limbs amputated at birth for just that purpose.

The stakes are high, but if the global community gets it right we can look forward to a world which could become much more balanced than is the case at the moment. As things stand, one person in five lives on less than $1 per day, and goes without food for at least one 24-hour period each week. In parts of Africa the starvation is even worse. Yet 6 million American men and 7 million women suffer eating disorders, and upwards of 30 percent of Australian primary school children are officially classified as obese. We have it within our power to change all of that, even to abolish poverty altogether, and this must be done with global co-operation between rich, donor nations, and their aid-dependent counterparts.

We do not need to impose our cultural values on others. Ten languages die out each year – at the time of writing this there is only one living speaker of Klamath Indian language in Oregon, and only one of Luo in Cameroon. We cannot reverse those two examples, but surely we can use the Internet to disseminate knowledge of cultures other than pop cultures. There must be more to the international information stream than cheaply made, brain-dead video clips of YouTube ephemera.

Responsible globalisation could put a complete cessation on Japanese whaling, and remove 27 million people from slavery, principally in Sudan, the Arab Emirates (bonded domestic workers) and Asian sex workers in Europe.

The world is indeed becoming a smaller place, and the future of globalisation is almost certainly nearing a crucial crossroad. The Western community, and its recently emergent Eastern equivalent, could between them engineer a situation which merely entrenches current inequities. However, if we believe in the essential goodness of humankind, the day may not be long off when a woman in Botswana, with a projected life expectancy of just 39, may look to her opposite number in Japan (expectancy 84) and say: “I’m going to live as long as you”. If that day dawns, globalisation can call itself a force for good.


David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains, NSW.

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