The End of Globalism
Grand economic theories rarely last more than a few decades. Some, if they are particularly in tune with technological or political events, may make it to half a century. Beyond that, little short of military force can keep them in place.
The wild open-market theory that died in 1929 had a run of just over 30 years. Communism, a complete melding of religious, economic and global theories, stretched to 70 years in Russia and 45 in central Europe, thanks precisely to the intensive use of military and police force. Keynesianism, if you add its flexible, muscular form during the Depression to its more rigid postwar version, lasted 45 years. Our own Globalisation, with its technocratic and technological determinism and market idolatry, had 30 years. And now it, too, is dead.
Of course, grand ideologies rarely disappear overnight. Fashions, whether in clothes or food or economics, tend to peter out. Thousands of people have done well out of their belief in Globalisation, and their professional survival is dependent on our continued shared devotion to the cause. So is their personal sense of self-worth. They will be in positions of power for a few more years, and so they will make their case for a little longer. But the signs of decline are clear, and since 1995 those signs have multiplied, building on one another, turning a confused situation into a collapse.
We have scarcely noticed this collapse, however, because Globalisation has been asserted by its believers to be inevitable - an all-powerful god; a holy trinity of burgeoning markets, unsleeping technology and borderless managers. Opposition or criticism has been treated as little more than romantic paganism. It was powerless before this surprisingly angry god, who would simply strike down with thunderbolts those who faltered and reward his heroes and champions with golden wreaths. If Globalisation has seemed so seductive to societies built upon Greek and Judeo-Christian mythologies, perhaps the reason is this bizarre confusing of salvation, fatalism and punishment. Transferred to economics, in however jumbled a manner, these belief systems are almost irresistible to us.
The British and French empires had vaunted and defended their power in similar ways from the late 19th century on; that is, just as they began to collapse. And as the various 19th-century nationalisms declined into ugliness, their supporters increasingly transformed them into a matter of race.
Inevitability is the traditional final justification for failing ideologies. Less traditional - and a sign of inherent weakness - is the extent to which Globalisation was conceived as old-fashioned religiosity. Perhaps the economists and other believers who launched Globalisation were instinctively concerned that people would notice their new theories were oddly similar to the trade theories of the mid-19th century or the unregulated market models that had been discredited in 1929. And so treating the intervening 40 years as an accidental interval, they began where their predecessors left off: with religious certainty.
Despite that initial certainty, a growing vagueness now surrounds the original promise of Globalisation; we seem to have lost track of what was repeatedly declared 30 years ago, even 10 years ago, to be inevitable.
That the power of the nation state was on its way out, to be replaced by that of global markets. That in the future, economics, not politics or arms, would determine the course of human events. That freed markets would quickly establish natural international balances, impervious to the old boom-and-bust cycles. That the growth in international trade, as a result of lowering barriers, would unleash an economic-social tide that would raise all ships, whether of our Western poor or of the developing world in general. That prosperous markets would turn dictatorships into democracies. That all of this would discourage irresponsible nationalism, racism and political violence. That global economics would produce stability through the creation of ever larger corporations impervious to bankruptcy. That these transnational corporations would provide a new kind of international leadership, free of local political prejudices.
That the rise of global marketplace leadership and the decline of national politics, with its tendency to deform healthy economic processes, would force the emergence of debt-free governments. By then wedding our governments to a permanent state of deficit-free public accounting, our societies would be stabilised.
In summary, global economic forces, if left unfettered by wilful man, would protect us against the errors of local self-pride, while allowing individual self-interest to lead each individual to a better life. Together these forces and self-interest would produce prosperity and general happiness. In a society where Christian dogma had been so dominant until so recently, how could people of goodwill not be attracted by this good news - by these promises of personal redemption? And if you add to all of this a multitude of new, technocratic market methods - well, then, the cycles of history would be broken, setting us on a permanent, inevitable course. In the words of a particularly naive believer, history would die. History was already dead.
Globalisation materialised in the 1970s from the sort of geopolitical vacuum or fog that appears whenever a civilisation begins to change direction, to grope its way around a corner from one era to another.
In geopolitics, a vacuum is not an option. It is the period between options; an opportunity, providing you can recognise it for what it is; a brief interregnum during which individuals can maximise their influence on the direction of their civilisation.
What caused that particular void? Perhaps a quarter century of social reform had left the liberal elites exhausted. The need to manage a multitude of enormous new social programs that had been put in place in a democratic manner - an ad hoc manner - made it difficult for political leaders to concentrate on the main line; that is, to concentrate on a broad sense of the public good. Instead, governments were caught up in the endless and directionless details of management. Or perhaps the cause of the vacuum was the resulting reliance of those political elites on technocrats, who understood little of the debate - in fact, distrusted it - and so drew the leaders into isolation.
In either case, most Western leaders seemed confused about what to do next. They had come to the end of a chapter of social progress. And they could not have been less prepared for a religious counterattack upon their ethical motivations, particularly not one in which the classic Judeo-Christian ideas of the sacred had been converted into economic inevitabilities.
These theoretically new economic ideas were now scarcely recognisable as the simplistic economic arguments of pre-1929. The religious fervour had been blended with sparkling waves of new technology and with masses of microeconomic data, all presented as fact. Relaunched in this way, as three in one, one in three, the old ideas seemed new.
Caught up as the liberal elites were in the instrumental rationality of program management, they responded to this attack with superior, stolid and unimaginative rejection. Instead of speaking out for the public good, they defended administrative structures. The effect was to make tired and discredited market arguments seem young, agile and modern.
One comic sign of the coming era was the creation, in 1971, in a Swiss mountain village called Davos, of a club for European corporate leaders. There they could examine civilisation through the prism of business. Soon businessmen were coming from around the world. Then government leaders and academics flooded in, looking for investors. Business leaders, politicians and academics alike seemed to accept without question the core tenet of Davos: that the public good should be treated as a secondary outcome of trade and competition and self-interest.
Davos was just a weather vane, a superficial and self-important version of a royal court, but when the G6 - now the G8 - was created in 1975, its aim mimicked that of Davos: to bring the leaders of the biggest national economies together to examine the world through the prism of economics. Never before had the great nations so explicitly and single-mindedly organised their core relationship around naked, commercial self-interest, without the positive and negative counterweights of social standards, human rights, political systems, dynasties, formal religions and, at the negative extreme, supposed racial destinies. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the French president who organised the first G6 meeting at his official country residence, Rambouillet, was the very model of the European technocratic economist. And his approach dominated.
But what actually opened the door to Globalisation was the economic collapse of 1973 - the depression that never was. The reigning technocratic obsession with management and control meant that we all had to be reassured. So we were told that this was just another recession. Then there was another recession, then another, and on and on, always minimised, always about to be resolved. The social reformers, who dominated within almost all political parties and governments, denied themselves the right to stand back and deal with the situation as a whole. They had lost the intellectual breadth and the emotional balance to do this. And so they gradually lost the right to lead.
As for the new force or ideology that came forward to fill the vacuum, it involved an all-inclusive strategy called Globalisation - an approach that contained the answer to every one of our problems. It was delightfully seductive. It contained simple, sweeping solutions and, as with all successful religions, lodged ultimate esponsibility in invisible untouchable hands. Thus Globalisation required no one to take responsibility for anything.
This transcendent vision quickly filled the vacuum. I first heard the variety of personal passivity produced by this belief system on French national television in a speech by Giscard d'Estaing. He had been elected as a new-style political leader - a brilliant economist. Modern. Almost postmodern. He was to lead society via the economy. But he came in just after the 1973 collapse, which included high inflation and unemployment. After a year or so of struggling with the collapse, Giscard went on television to tell people that great global, indeed inevitable, forces were at work. There was therefore little that he could do. Nation states were powerless.
This was the beginning of the mania for public declarations of impotence by democratically elected leaders. Globalisation became their excuse for not dealing with difficult issues, for not using their levers of power and larger budgets to effect. They made the force of inevitability credible.
Globalisation had brilliant proponents - Margaret Thatcher first among them, and economists like Milton Friedman, but also growing waves of new-style managers and consultants. These people had a multiplicity of roles. They briefed public and private sector leaders, organised the structures that implement policies, and ran these structures on a day-to-day basis. And their basic theory was - is - that modern methodology is universal. What's more, these methods are preferable to the untidy business of democratic argument and personal will, whether that is a matter of personal opinion or personal choice. In other words, they were engaged in the classic struggle to promote method over opinion; that is, form over content.
And so, as always happens when form is dominant, a variety of experiments were undertaken. Around the world, civil services were shrunk, public and private sectors deregulated, markets released, taxes cut, public budgets balanced. Corporations began growing in size by merging and remerging. This gigantism was considered necessary for success in the new world market. Trade grew by an astonishing multiple of 20. European economic integration accelerated. New Zealand, the original social democratic model state, did a complete flip in the mid-1980s and attempted to become the perfect Globalised nation state. The economies of Canada and the US were rapidly integrated after the signing of a free trade agreement in 1988, to which the integration of the Mexican economy was added with the signing of NAFTA.
Social reformers, for their part, restructured their own arguments until their basic assumptions were the same as those of their opponents. Social democrats and liberals almost everywhere became Globalists, but of a kindler, gentler sort.
Government after government, as if in a fit of moralism, legislated away its right to take on debt or collect new taxes, even though both of these were fundamental governmental powers, central to the construction and maintenance of democracies. In fact, debt and taxes had played the same fundamental role in the pre-democratic period. At the same time, the private sector invented myriad new debts and privatised taxes for itself. Everything from junk bonds to credit cards was treated as an unregulated privatised currency. And corporations used the old default mechanism more than ever to clear their own decks whenever it was handy to do so.
The sin of public debt was then broadened by attributing it to public utilities. Running well or not, they had to be privatised and deregulated into a global marketplace to cleanse them of public sector inefficiencies. This led in turn to the large utility-style private businesses, such as airlines, being freed of regulatory restraints to satisfy a moral version of individualism that promised, for example, the right to travel, cheaper fares, greater choice, more destinations.
From the early 1970s to late in the century, multiple binding
international economic treaties were put in place, while almost
no counterbalancing binding treaties were negotiated for work
conditions, taxation, the environment or legal obligations.
For 250 years the painful job of building the modern nation
state had depended on a continual rebalancing of binding rules
for both the public good and self-interest.
Now this balance was tipped violently one way by simply shifting much of our economic power out into the global marketplace.
With economic power denationalised and transnationals using the new unregulated debt and currency systems to accumulate a financial worth greater than that of most nation states, the next logical step was to think of those transnationals as new nations unto themselves - virtual nations, freed of the limitations of geography and citizens, freed of local obligations, empowered with the mobility of money and goods. Better in every way.
This quarter-century rise of Globalisation peaked in 1995 when the old system of international trade agreements - known collectively as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - was reconceived as a new powerful body, the World Trade Organisation. It was the last triumph. There was nothing remarkable about the creation of the WTO. It was just a centralised body to deal with commercial trade issues - not a bad thing in and of itself. The important point was the context. The reconceptualisation of civilisation through the prism of economics had reached a critical barrier. Beyond that barrier any international exchange that involved a commercial element would be treated as fundamentally commercial. Culture would be seen as a mere matter of industrial regulation; food, as a secondary outcome of agricultural industries.
What particularly caught public attention around the world was the idea that national health and food rules would be treated not as the expression of a people concerned about what sorts of things it put in its collective stomach but rather as mere protectionism - unless backed by the hardest of hard scientific evidence. That sort of evidence was usually decades in coming. The precautionary principle and the citizen's opinion were thus to be thrown aside in favour of an absolutist theory of commercial exchange.
This determinist approach towards agriculture as an industry rather than as a food source - towards the implications of everything from fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides to genetics, hormones, antibiotics, labelling and sourcing - became the flash point for a far broader concern among citizens. This was the context in which a growing percentage of people judged the handling of key issues as different as mad cow disease, the availability of pharmaceuticals in the developing world and global warming. They were beginning to feel that what was presented as an argument of Globalism versus protectionism was often just a confused opposition of personal choice and abstract corporate interests. So Globalisation, put forward as a metaphor for choice, was organising itself around not consumers but corporate structures, structures that sought profits by limiting personal choice.
Soon people began to notice other contradictions in the Global orthodoxy. How could the same ideology promise a planetary growth in democracy and yet a decline in the power of the nation state? Democracy exists only inside countries. Weaken the nation state and you weaken democracy.
Why did an unprecedented increase in money supply translate
into a dearth of money for public services? And why did
this growth in new moneys enrich mainly those who already
Why did it lead to a growth in the rich-versus-poor dichotomy
and a squeezing of the middle class? Why did many privatisations
of public utilities neither improve services nor lower costs
for consumers but instead guarantee revenues to the new
owners while leading to a collapse in infrastructure investment?
People noticed that the financial value of the great breakthroughs in female employment had somehow been inflated away. Abruptly, a middle class family required two incomes. They noticed that in a mere 25 years CEO salaries in the US had gone from 39 times the pay of an average worker to more than 1000 times. Elsewhere the numbers were similar. And the savings from the cuts in civil servants were more than offset by the cost of new lobbyists and consultants.
There were three particularly obvious signs that Globalisation would not deliver on its promises. First, the leadership of a movement devoted to "real competition" was made up largely of tenured professors, consultants, and technocrats - private-sector bureaucrats - managing large joint-stock companies. Most of the changes they sought were aimed at reducing competition.
Second, the idea of transnationals as new virtual nation states missed the obvious. Natural resources are fixed in place, inside nation states. And consumers live on real land in real places. These are called countries. The managers and professors who waxed enthusiastic about the new virtual corporate nations were themselves resident citizens and consumers in old-fashioned nation states. It would be only a matter of time before elected leaders noticed that their governments were far stronger than the large corporations.
Finally, the new approach to debt - public versus private, First World versus Third World - revealed a fatal confusion. Those who preached Globalisation couldn't tell the difference between ethics and morality. Ethics is the measurement of the public good. Morality is the weapon of religious and social righteousness. Political and economic ideologies often decline into religious-style morality towards the end. But Globalisation had shoved ethics to the side from the beginning and insisted upon a curious sort of moral righteousness that included maximum trade, unrestrained self-interest and governments alone respecting their debts. These notions were curiously paired with something often called family values, as well as an Old Testament view of good and evil.
It somehow followed that if countries were in
financial trouble, they were moral transgressors. They had
to discipline themselves. Wear hair shirts. Embrace denial
This was the crucifixion theory of economics: you had to be killed economically and socially in order to be reborn clean and healthy. For a quarter century, under the severe hand of the IMF, this moralising and emotionally charged approach has been applied to the developing world with absolutely no success. Oddly enough, it had been presented as a form of cool, detached utilitarianism. Those who applied the theory seemed to fail the basic philosophical test of functioning intelligence and ethics - the ability to imagine the Other. They simply insisted, as developing-world debts continued to rise on a rollercoaster of instability, that those people must learn to act in a more predictable manner.
Which brings to mind rather aged priests insisting that young men should take cold showers and exercise more.
By the turn of the century, it had become clear that nationalism and the nation states were stronger than they had been when Globalisation began. Indeed, this was apparent as early as 1991, when the Yugoslavian army tried to stop Slovenia and Croatia from leaving their federation. The ensuing massacre was a test for almost every international organisation. All of them failed. As if in a black comedy, international elites chattered away about how global economic forces made nation states irrelevant, while thousands of real people were being murdered and cleansed to facilitate the creation of yet more nation states. The resulting horror shocked the Europeans into the realisation that their economic and administrative union was helpless in a political-military disaster.
Eventually Washington brokered the Dayton peace accords. But Dayton accepted the model of the local nationalist war criminals. Jews in Bosnia don't exist as citizens unless they pretend to belong to one of the three official races. Neither do people of mixed blood. Dayton is all about racially based nations - the most appalling aspect of nationalism, but nationalism nonetheless. And so Globalisation's triumph, with the creation of the WTO in 1995, was paired with its humiliation at the Dayton signing in the same year.
In a depressing game of leapfrog, the Yugoslavian settlement competed with a genocide in Rwanda, where half a million to a million people were murdered. This is a remarkable statistic.
In a global world of economic and social measurement,
we are bombarded daily by apparently exact statistics measuring
growth, efficiency, production, reproduction, sales, currency
fluctuations, comparative levels of obesity and orgasms, divorce,
salaries and incomes. Yet we don't know, or don't care to
know, whether it was a million or half a million Rwandans
who were massacred. And the genocide was facilitated by Paris
and Washington, using old-fashioned nation-state powers at
the UN security council to block a serious international intervention.
The Rwanda catastrophe then morphed into the Congo catastrophe,
involving 4.7 million deaths between 1998 and 2003. Or was
it 3 million? Or 5.5 million?
The point is that the inevitability of global economic leadership has been irrelevant through all these crises. While the true believers speak of Globalisation, we are in fact in the middle of an accelerated political meltdown marked by astonishing levels of nationalist violence.
Observant national leaders couldn't help but notice that the theories of Globalisation were failing them. The most public of these failures was the breakdown of international lending and debt mechanisms. For a short period it looked as if the IMF's punishing approach might actually work. For a dozen years most Latin American governments tried to follow instructions laid down by the IMF, Western governments and the private banks. They endured crucifixion economics, and in many cases this eventually produced apparently solid growth, even if the parallel result was a greater rich/poor gap. But in each case the recovery was followed, a few years later, by even greater collapse. It turned out that such prolonged austerity had weakened, not strengthened, the social-economic fabric. So after all of the liberalisations, privatisations and inflation-stabilisation programs, growth in Latin America in the late 1990s was a little over half what it had been before the reforms.
True believers will tell you that it could have worked, if
only there had been less nepotism, weaker unions or less corruption.
But real economic policies in the real world don't require
perfect conditions. Perfect conditions don't exist in the
real world. Western growth over two centuries has come in
spite of our own shifting flaws.
Peru and Bolivia are on a precipice. Argentina is picking itself up yet again, while its educated youth emigrate en masse. Now, like Brazil, it is going to try something it believes more suitable to its circumstances. Only Chile seems solid, and that is because, since the departure of Pinochet, it has carefully designed its own solutions.
In other words, Latin America no longer believes in Globalisation. Neither does Africa. Nor does a good part of Asia. Globalisation is no longer global. Indeed, most Western finance ministers have been quietly working for some time on partial reregulation of the markets. Why quietly? To avoid the ferocity of the true believers.
In 1998 the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Ian Macfarlane, began calling for reregulation. "More people are asking whether the international financial system as it has operated for most of the nineties is basically unstable. By now, I think the majority of observers have come to the conclusion that it is, and that some changes have to be made."
In the same year a combination of street demonstrators and distrustful ministers of finance from around the developed world killed the Multilateral Agreement on Investment negotiations, which had been aimed at a further Globalisation of finance and investment. They rejected the idea of yet more business-oriented binding treaties, with no binding political or social counterweights.
At almost the same time, Malaysia responded to an economic meltdown in Asia by refusing to follow the Global rules. The government pulled its currency off the market, made it nonconvertible, pegged it just low enough to favour exports, blocked the export of foreign capital and raised tariffs. These measures were met by an explosion of Western moral fervour. Malaysia could not do this. Its economy would not survive. The leading international emerging-markets index expelled them. Then everyone averted their eyes from the inevitable collapse. In 1999, a short year later, that same index sheepishly readmitted Malaysia. Smarter merchant bankers began to praise the possible long-term investment advantages of pegging certain currencies in certain conditions.
By then the World Bank, under new leadership, had begun to
soften its monolithic Global view, even if the IMF has been
extremely slow to accept reality and follow. Late in the year
the WTO was humiliated in Seattle by unprecedented demonstrations.
By the end of the century it was not only national leaders who were beginning to take a more nuanced view of Globalisation's capitalist credentials.
A growing number of people, including the brighter business leaders, were focusing on where deregulation had worked and where it hadn't.
The airline industry, for example, had been growing since
World War II. The calls for deregulation in the mid-1970s
came from a successful, profitable growth sector, which continued
to grow until September 11, 2001. Even then, the drop was
only 5.7 per cent, which, given 60 years of solid growth,
should not have been a catastrophe. Yet it was. In any case,
those corporations that had called for deregulation a quarter
century before had pretty well all gone bankrupt, one by one
over the intervening years. The whole industry is now dependent
on cut-rate airlines. So a sector that provides essential
services is being run on dubious margins and institutional
Why? Because of devotion to a simplistic, monolithic model of Global market forces. But a large aircraft is not a telephone or a pair of running shoes. Planes that cost hundreds of millions of dollars have to be paid for with $100 airfares - a daunting business model. The secret to the industry's pre-1973 success was its stability - produced by carefully maintained, long-term public regulations.
As for the romance of gigantism - of corporate size as a criterion
for industrial success - it was beginning to look pretty silly.
Endless mergers had led to high levels of unserviceable debt
and bankruptcy. It was as if size had replaced thought. As
if it were a male thing.
It was all beginning to resemble the 17th- and 18th-century speculation markets - the South Sea Bubble, John Law and the French regency, the Dutch tulip-bulb frenzy. The larger the corporations grew, the slower and more directionless they became - enormous management structures frightened of serious investment and risk. They resembled out-of-control bureaucracies. Yet the whole argument in favour of Globalisation had been the apparently desperate need to wrench power from the bureaucracies and place it firmly in the hands of real owners capable of taking real risks.
More perhaps than the genocides, the disorder in the streets,
or the debt crises, it was those simple recurring images of
corporate ineptitude, combined with an absence of self-criticism,
that first made clear the decline of Globalisation. How then
could any of us seriously believe that our redemption lay
in the reconceptualisation of civilisation so that we could
all view it through the prism of business and economics?
The larger the corporations became, the more deregulation released them to be themselves, the faster they slipped out of sync with their civilisation and even with their customers and shareholders.
Of course most people in business were working away as best they could, more or less as they always had, whatever the ideology in place. The people who stumbled badly seemed to be the insistent stars of the new-world methodology. And so, in full public view, the value of the fabled merger of AOL and TimeWarner slipped rapidly from $US284 billion to $US61 billion. And GE's Jack Welch, a model new leader, began stumbling towards every last penny on the floor like a greedy little boy. Arthur Andersen demonstrated that accountants can act as badly as anyone else. Hollinger, whose newspapers on four continents had trumpeted Globalisation, fell under multiple financial and legal investigations, as did Parmalat, the great Italian success story. And so on.
Ideology, like theatre, is dependent on the willing suspension of disbelief. At the core of every ideology lies the worship of a bright new future, with only failure in the immediate past. But once the suspension goes, willingness converts into suspicion - the suspicion of the betrayed. Our brilliant leaders abruptly appear naive, even ridiculous.
And so, in the late 1990s, our disbelief came back, and with
it our memory. The years between 1945 and 1973 no longer seemed
such a failure. In fact, it had been one of the most successful
eras in history for both social reform and economic growth.
It was something to build on, to reform; not something to
The first clear hint of the end of the reigning ideology came with Malaysia's successful rejection of the Globalisation model. We, in our fervour, saw their crisis as one of economics, and therefore subject to the rules of inevitability. The Malaysians saw it as a national political crisis with economic implications. And so they acted politically and nationally, and were proved right. Abruptly it seemed possible that nation states were not dying. And that economic certainty was naive.
Then, in late 1999, came the general election in New Zealand. Fifteen years earlier this small country had become the model for Globalisation. Now, overnight, its electors voted to change direction, endorsing a strong interventionist government devoted to a mix of national social policies, enforceable economic regulations and a stable private sector. Why? Its national industries had been sold off, its economy was in decline and its standard of living had been stagnant for all 15 years of its Globalisation experiment. Its young were emigrating at alarming rates. This, the citizens now said, was not inevitable. If a small country could flex its muscles, well, then, the nation state was truly alive.
Then came the explosions of September 11, 2001. In the following
days, the world economy began plummeting into a depression.
Corporate leaders hunkered down to their businesses, forgot
about world leadership and, with a classic desire to reduce
risk, slashed their investment programs, thus accelerating
society's economic plunge.
As for the political leaders, ministers of finance, chairs of reserve and national banks - the constituted elites of the nation states - they rolled into action. They travelled and talked, printed money and spent vast amounts of it. And they managed to stabilise the situation. In other words, there was a brutal, highly public and existential reversal of roles. The governments of the nation states took back their full power both to act and to lead. The CEOs retreated back into their historic reactive role.
Once belief is gone, the churches begin to empty. You could
see this accelerating disbelief in bankruptcy court in December
2001, when, as if in the last scene of an old-fashioned bedroom
farce, the "inevitability" of Global corporate leadership
came face to face with Enron, filing for government protection
from its private debts.
You saw it again in the opening session of the frivolous court of Davos. This was where, 33 years before, the theology of Globalisation had been first put forward, all based on the assumption that civilisation must be approached through a single, monolithic economic prism. Yet here they were on their opening day in January 2003 feting Mahathir Mohamad, then prime minister of Malaysia, for his country's economic success. It was clear to everyone that this success had come from political leadership at the nation-state level and that it was based on the rejection of Globalist economics. A few days later, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the new president of Brazil, arrived in the Swiss village to lay out an independent, straightforward version of responsible nation-state populism.
What all of this meant became perfectly clear when US secretary of state Colin Powell arrived to speak for the country that had achieved more national power than any other in history. Insofar as a possible war with Iraq was concerned, he declared, "we will act even if others are not prepared to join us". So the US would act unilaterally - that is, nationally.
Thus, in a single week, inside the emotional and mythological home of Globalisation, three very different pivotal governments turned their backs on Globalisation and acted as if the nation state were the central international reality.
The war that followed in Iraq quite intentionally put an effective end to the half-century-old Western alliance produced by World War II. Washington had chosen in January 2003 not to take the time to put together the traditional Western battlefield coalition. The effect was to free a cast of nations to rethink their relationships. This was as true for the old NATO players as it was for the smaller, newly free, central European states, which were able to flex their nation-state muscles by joining in. Some of them had never had such an opportunity. For others it was the first time since the 1930s.
Throughout the world, nations began moving about like semi-free agents. Organisations such as NATO are still solid. There is no desire to storm out. But everyone is checking around to see if there are other ways they might like to act. And with whom. What this might mean remains painfully unclear. Here we are, rushing around one of those sharp corners with no idea of where we are going. Perhaps back to the worst of old-style negative nationalism. Or perhaps on towards a more complex and interesting form of positive nationalism, based on the public good.
What is certain is that nationalism of the best and the worst sort has made a remarkable, unexpected recovery. We don't yet know whether it will become the new dominant ideology. What we do know is that there has been a return across Europe of 19th-century-style negative nationalism. Although usually the product of fear, it reappeared in countries that had nothing to fear: Jorg Haider in Austria speaking out against immigrants, while echoing race and monolithic national myths. Italy governed by three nationalists, one of them the leader of Mussolini's old party. Related phenomena in Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland. A sudden revival of sectarian nationalism in Northern Ireland. The defeat of a compromise in Corsica. Everywhere these nationalists are now in coalition governments or are leading oppositions.
Many mainstream parties have trimmed their sails to capture
some of this nationalist vote. Non-European immigrants, who
rarely account for more than 5 per cent of a country's population,
have become the focus for a sense of political and social
impotence, produced in part by a quarter century of continental
and Global inevitabilities. Today's growing fear of Muslims
is parallelled by a return of anti-Semitism. The last Australian
election was won by provoking a fear of immigrants.
The new president of the Czech Republic is thought to be an old-fashioned nationalist, as is the governor of Tokyo. Because the US is so powerful, people say its actions are all about empire. But empires are mere extensions of nationalism. They are not a phenomenon of either Globalisation or internationalism.
At the same time, positive forms of nationalism have surged forward, with countries like South Africa and Brazil taking on the pharmaceutical transnationals over the availability of drugs to fight epidemics such as AIDS. And these nations have been winning. A reasonable number of noneconomic and internationally binding treaties based on the primacy of ethics and the public good have begun to take form: the Ottawa treaty against land mines, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto accord against global warming. They represent the beginnings of an attempt at an international balance in which the prism of civilisation is neither naive market economics nor national selfishness.
The return of the idea of national power has also meant the return of the idea of choice - choice for citizens and choice for countries. But with choice comes uncertainty, which provokes fear. The moment we entered the post-Globalisation vacuum, you could feel that fear begin to rise. And curiously enough, the greater a nation's power, the more intense the fear becomes. Perhaps power produces an expectation of certainty. Perhaps smaller countries find a certain freedom in uncertainty - the freedom to choose without being bullied. Necessity, Pitt the Younger said, is the excuse of every tyranny. For most smaller countries, Globalisation has felt like an inevitability and, so, like a tyranny.
History will eventually give
all of these contradictory signals a shape. But history is
neither for nor against. It just is. And
there is no such thing as a prolonged vacuum in geopolitics. It is always filled. This is what happens every few decades.
The world turns, shifts, takes a new tack, or retries an old
one. Civilisation rushes around one of those blind corners
filled with uncertainties.
Then, abruptly, the opportunities present themselves to those who move with skill and commitment.
John Ralston Saul is the author of Voltaire's Bastards: The
Dictatorship of Reason in the West, Unconscious Civilisation
and, most recently, On Equilibrium: The Six Qualities of the
New Humanism. ©2004 Harper's Magazine. Distributed by
Tribune Media Services International.