A well-connected Canadian observer thinks so.
We are entering one of those potent moments of history when the future is up for grabs, announces John Ralston Saul. And he is not referring to some kind of astrological realignment or Nostradamus-style ancient prophesy. He means the equivalent of 1929 – a time when the old economic order is falling apart and new ideas about the world are listened to more carefully than usual.
Saul offers a sweeping obituary for the era of globalization in a Harper’s magazine cover story (March 2003). But he is not your usual anti-globalization crusader. His resume includes experience as executive of a Canadian oil company, director of a French investment firm, Secretary of the Canada-China Trade Council, art critic, wine columnist and spy novelist who lived for long stretches in Southeast Asia and North Africa. (Indeed, in Canada he is officially known as “His Excellency” by virtue of being married to Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, the de facto head of state.)
“Grand economic theories rarely last more than a few decades,” Saul writes. Globalization had a thirty-year run, dominating many aspects of Western life for the past quarter-century and holding sway over the entire world for more than a decade. But the results have not been happy for most people, especially compared to the record of globalization’s immediate predecessor, the various forms of social democracy that blossomed between 1945 and the global economic woes of the mid-1970s. This earlier system, despite its bureaucratic clumsiness, brought rising standards of living to some people around the world and a measure of hope for the others. Globalization, in Saul’s view, has failed spectacularly in its promise of spreading wealth and reducing poverty. In fact, just the opposite has happened under the hand of the IMF, free trade deals and the World Bank.
Globalization is not completely finished, he writes, because so many powerful people in business, the media, universities and governments feel that “their professional survival is dependent on our shared devotion to the cause.” But the signs of globalization’s decline are unmistakable, he believes.
The age of globalization was at its peak in 1995 with the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Yet that period also saw unbelievable massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda, reminding us that in many of parts of the world, blood and soil speak more loudly than profits and markets. The next big step toward a globalized future, the Multilateral Agreements on Investment (MAI), was rejected – first by impassioned activists in the streets, then by nervous finance ministers in meetings. In 1998, Malaysia called the globalizers’ bluff by pulling its currency out of world money markets, blocking the export of foreign capital and raising tariffs to protect domestic industries. When the nation’s economy emerged from this defiant move unscathed – in fact, improved – the game was clearly changing. The Seattle protests in 1999 and, finally, the economic fall out of 9/11 offered only more evidence that globalization was on the way out.
It’s not too early for bold thinkers to exert influence on what will follow, Saul says. A tough brand of recycled nationalism – by Jorg Haider in Austria or the murdered Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands – will certainly make its claim for supremacy along with radical religious fundamentalism in its Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu versions. On the more humane side, he detects the rise of more enlightened forms of nationalism, as seen recently in Brazil and South Africa, and the emergence of a different kind of globalism as witnessed by wide international support for the Ottawa treaty against land mines and the Kyoto accords on global warming.
David Morris, a leading advocate of local economics over global economics as the best method for human progress, takes more of a wait-and-see attitude than Saul. While agreeing that the influence of nationalism has been underestimated by free-market partisans, he points to the recent expansion of the European Union as an interesting example of “ten sovereign nations subordinating themselves to a broader institution”. But the real wild card in the future of the world’s economy, according to Morris, vice-president of the U.S.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is China. “With 1.3 billion people and an economy that is doubling every six to seven years, they will play a major role in whatever happens.”
Jerry Mander, president of the International Forum on Globalization, a network of global justice and environmental groups in 20 countries, concurs with Saul’s assessment. He points to the Iraq War, where the U.S. and Britain are fighting pretty much alone, and to Latin America, where the governments of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have strongly rejected globalization dictates. “Many countries have noticed that they do not have to go along. They’ve noticed that they don’t get anything out of globalization.”
“Where the action is right now,” he adds, “is thinking about what are the alternatives to globalization.”