The world economy will shrink this year for the first time since
1945, and some economists worry that the current crisis could spell the
beginning of the end of globalization. Hard economic times are
correlated with protectionism, as each country blames others and
protects its domestic jobs. In the 1930’s, such “beggar-thy-neighbor”
policies worsened the situation. Unless political leaders resist such
responses, the past could become the future.
Ironically, however, such a grim prospect would not mean the end of
globalization, defined as the increase in worldwide networks of
interdependence. Globalization has several dimensions, and, though
economists all too often portray it and the world economy as being one
and the same, other forms of globalization also have significant
effects – not all of them benign – on our daily lives.
The oldest form of globalization is environmental. For example, the
first smallpox epidemic was recorded in Egypt in 1350 BC. It reached
China in 49 AD, Europe after 700, the Americas in 1520, and Australia
in l789. Bubonic plague, or the Black Death, originated in Asia, but
its spread killed a quarter to a third of Europe’s population in the
Europeans carried diseases to the Americas in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries that destroyed up to 95% of the indigenous
population. In 1918, a flu pandemic caused by a bird virus killed some
40 million people around the world, far more than the recently
concluded world war. Some scientists today predict a repeat of an avian
Since 1973, 30 previously unknown infectious diseases have emerged,
and other familiar diseases have spread geographically in new,
drug-resistant forms. In the 20 years after HIV/AIDS was identified in
the 1980’s it killed 20 million people and infected another 40 million
around the world. Some experts project that that number will double by
2010. The spread of foreign species of flora and fauna to new areas has
wiped out native species, and may result in economic losses of several
hundred billion dollars per year.
Global climate change will affect the lives of people everywhere.
Thousands of scientists from more than 100 countries recently reported
that there is new and strong evidence that most of the warming observed
over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities, and average
global temperatures in the twenty-first century are projected to
increase between 2.5 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The result could be
more severe variations in climate, with too much water in some regions
and not enough in others.
The effects will include stronger storms, hurricanes, and floods,
deeper droughts, and more landslides. Rising temperatures have
lengthened the freeze-free season in many regions, and glaciers are
melting. The rate at which the sea level rose in the last century was
ten times faster than the average rate over the last three millennia.
Then there is military globalization, consisting of networks of
interdependence in which force, or the threat of force, is employed.
The world wars of the twentieth century are a case in point. The prior
era of economic globalization reached its peak in 1914, and was set
back by the world wars. But, while global economic integration did not
regain its 1914 level until half a century later, military
globalization grew as economic globalization shrank.
During the Cold War, the global strategic interdependence between
the United States and the Soviet Union was acute and well recognized.
Not only did it produce world-straddling alliances, but either side
could have used intercontinental missiles to destroy the other within
This was distinctive not because it was totally new, but because the
scale and speed of the potential conflict arising from military
interdependence were so enormous. Today, Al Qaeda and other
transnational actors have formed global networks of operatives,
challenging conventional approaches to national defense through what
has been called “asymmetrical warfare.”
Finally, social globalization consists in the spread of peoples,
cultures, images, and ideas. Migration is a concrete example. In the
nineteenth century, some 80 million people crossed oceans to new homes
– far more than in the twentieth century. At the beginning of the
twenty-first century, 32 million US residents (11.5% of the population)
were foreign-born. In addition, some 30 million visitors (students,
businesspeople, tourists) enter the country each year.
Ideas are an equally important aspect of social globalization.
Technology makes physical mobility easier, but local political
reactions against immigrants had been growing even before the current
The danger today is that short-sighted protectionist reactions to
the economic crisis could help to choke off the economic globalization
that has spread growth and raised hundreds of millions of people out of
poverty over the past half-century. But protectionism will not curb the
other forms of globalization.
Modern technology means that pathogens travel more easily than in
earlier periods. Easy travel plus hard economic times means that
immigration rates may accelerate to the point where social friction
exceeds general economic benefit. Similarly, hard economic times may
worsen relations among governments, as well as domestic conflicts that
can lead to violence.
At the same time, transnational terrorists will continue to benefit
from modern information technology, such as the Internet. And, while
depressed economic activity may slow somewhat the rate of
greenhouse-gas build-up in the atmosphere, it will also slow the types
of costly programs that governments must enact to address emissions
that have already occurred.
So, unless governments cooperate to stimulate their economies and
resist protectionism, the world may find that the current economic
crisis does not mean the end of globalization, but only the end of the
good kind, leaving us with the worst of all worlds.
S. Nye, Jr., a professor at Harvard, was recently rated as one of the
most influential scholars of the past 20 years by other scholars of