In an exhibition of display democracy (the GOP primary contest) Newt Gingrich, a man who prides himself on his policy depth, tried for a knockout blow against Mitt Romney in the run-up to the New Hampshire primary. Romney’s fatal flaw was that he spoke French.

There was no higher crime in political life than showing any proficiency in French, let alone affection for Gallic culture. Undoubtedly, any political aspirant caught reading Flaubert or Balzac could find himself or herself in front of a firing squad after a perfunctory trial.

We saw a similar attitude towards the French in the run-up to the Iraq war, which France opposed. In an effort to humiliate them, Americans decided to rename its national dish “liberty fries” —although no one suggested returning the Statue of Liberty to France, who had gifted it to the US in 1886.  According to one survey, since 65% of Americans couldn’t find France on the map, returning the statue would have posed a practical problem.

These attitudes display a xenophobic streak in Americans that, up to the Second World War, was the bedrock of its isolationism.  It is therefore a paradox when the US is given credit for sponsoring globalization, and it is a fact that a number of Americans have been prominent in the construction of its rules and institutions.

I would like to argue that there are two distinct, and at times contradictory, motivations that US leaders display towards globalization.

There are true globalists who are keen on creating international rules that are fair to all. In this group I would include Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who first promoted the idea of creating an international trading organization in 1933. During the war there was Wendell Willkie. After unsuccessfully running as the GOP candidate for the presidency in 1940, Willkie spent the war years promoting internationalism. In 1943, he published One World, which sold over three million copies and is credited with persuading Americans to accept the creation of the United Nations.  Then there is Harry Dexter White, who helped create the IMF and World Bank. While all were patriotic Americans, they also saw that an interdependent world required laws that were fair to all. Certainly America would lead, but by example rather than force.

This post-war generation of globalists was genuine. They had sufficient faith in the ingenuity and enterprise of Americans and believed that the nation would adapt and thrive in the new world order.

Then there are globalists whom I would call “American-first.”  They want to manipulate international rules to suit the specific needs of America, regardless of whether they are fair or not.  Their version of globalization is tailored around US interests. Their contribution to globalization is to create rules that mirror those already existing in the US. For this group, US sovereignty is sacrosanct while every other country is expected to compromise its sovereignty.

Interestingly, since the 1970s support for globalization has moved into the corporate sector, and this time American CEOs took the lead. With operations in many countries, they saw little need to game the rules to suit the US and have probably played a more constructive role in globalization than “American-first” globalists. Their contribution has not all been positive, as their primary motivation is to create rules that suit their corporate needs, regardless of the public interest.

If globalization is to work, politicians need to come to terms with the idea of pooling their sovereignty to deal with the global economy. In an interdependent world where the actions of one country can harm another, the best solution is the rule of law, where those laws are international laws rather than the law of the jungle in which the strong dominate the weak.

So if you’re curious, the next time you meet an American who admits support of globalization, ask him or her what the French word is for “globalization.”  If he answers “mondialisation,” then you know where he stands.

2 Comments for this entry

  • Amanda S says:

    American mistakenly think they own globalization.

  • Judyth Mermelstein says:

    A good concise summary of the issue.

    A good twenty years ago, I and others tried to insist on a distinction between the globalists, intending to negotiate international conventions of fair treatment for all, and the globalizers, whose intentions were fundamentally to replicate the successes of colonialism without owing allegiance or obedience to any nation. To most people, the distinction seemed like pure pedantry on our part.

    By a decade later, many more understood the difference but most seemed to feel there was nothing to be done since the globalizers were clearly in control. They still are, alas, but now there are literally millions of people expressing their desire for real change. In some circles, the globalizers and their pet politicians still believe you can “fool all of the people all of the time” but it seems the 21st century is determined to prove them wrong.

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