Global is the New Local

May 8th, 2009 Curve, Features

Are you depriving some poor African family of water for a month every time you turn on a tap? The world’s more politically connected than ever, and Drew Turney looks at how we got this way and what the future holds…

It was 1999 and conspiracy fever was sweeping the globe in the form of TV series like The X Files. We were convinced governments were lying to us about being in contact with the aliens who crashed at Roswell and the Illuminati preparing for the end times. Websites with exposes on the Freemasons and proof of Princess Diana’s murder claimed the powers that be were ready to sign us all up to a world government whether we wanted one or not. Run by lizard beings from space…

A decade on, is the likelihood of a global government (or something like it) any closer? Throughout history countries have moved closer together. Formalising supra-national trade and political instruments seems a matter of social evolution, but it gets murky when you consider the institution of representative government. Few are comfortable with the idea of an unelected bureaucratic superstructure with the power to tell the government they voted for what to do.

But while concentrating rule might be bad for civics it’s good for business, which benefits from smoother, more efficient operating systems. That was the rationale behind the Multinational Agreement on Investment (MIA), stonewalled by France in 1998 after leaked drafts stoked fears about deregulation gone mad.

Along with pop culture panic about governments in secret meetings with aliens was a very real anti-corporate mood that led to watershed moments like the Battle of Seattle, the explosive 1999 protests against the WTO. It’s a movement Tim Harcourt, Austrade chief economist, remembers well, and one he believes should have been handled better by both sides. “The WTO was targeted not because [the popular] movement was against reducing tariffs but because there was frustration with inequality in the world,” he says.

“The global sceptics and global advocates were at cross purposes. The sceptics were rightly concerned about inequality and excessive executive salaries and targeted a rules-based trade organisation that had relatively little to do with distribution issues. The global-advocates thought growth in trade and investment would help to raise prosperity, but paid little attention to whom would prosper. They just accused the sceptics of ‘globaloney’ – a better approach would have been to persuade rather than dismiss.”

Termed ‘political integration schemes’ in academic parlance, bodies like the World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund (IMF) still exist and still offer virtual diplomatic vacuums away from national electorates where negotiators can clear trade obstacles.

And with so much private capital in so many unstable regions, the global political movement has military arms as well, most recently made clear when European and North American leaders sent the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to bomb Kosovo. But in an age where the Bush administration embarked on its 2005 invasion of Iraq despite massive popular protest and official censure from institutions everywhere — including the United Nations — are such agreements even relevant?

Everything old is new

The jockeying of politics as it goes global is nothing new, only the scale changes. Since Australia became a federation in 1901 three levels of government have constantly butted heads — particularly with the establishment of the two party system where a federal government might find itself begrudgingly funding political enemies at the state level.

But we’ve needed ever more levels of rule and political agreement throughout history, and the truth is we’ll probably need even bigger ones in future. National politics — like the fiefdoms of the Middle Ages who commanded little more than large country estates — used to be enough before we had global concerns like Internet filtering or intellectual property protection.

The most visible example is the European Union, today a single trading bloc with a common currency and financial infrastructure. Technology and development renders a Europe comprised of different countries bunched together so close together an economically silly idea, and in many ways the countries of Europe now operate the same as Australian or US states.

Of course, that messy will of the people keeps getting in the way and two millennia of tradition are hard to break. As recently as 2000 Denmark voted not to adopt the Euro, and the famously patriotic, resolute Brits refuse to give up symbols of independence and identity like their currency and passport system.

But just like Europeans were once used to huge gates guarded by knights in chainmail, today’s European kids will grow up with their French, German and Czech friends crossing borders effortlessly, using a single currency and in most cases speaking a common second language (English). The unthinkable always comes around given time, and the old cliché about the world getting smaller is always true.

History has always shown us that as technology, business and culture travel beyond national borders, so must some form of politics. Now, with China pumping millions of tons of carbon emissions into the air, Australia will suffer more devastating drought and killer bushfires like we saw in Victoria. But what can we do when we have no say in the Chinese political process, even as their actions look set to drive us to the brink of environmental catastrophe? And given the choice between the livelihoods of 1.3 billion Chinese and only 20 million of us, who’d listen?

“We know more about the world today than ever, and we don’t expect nations to be accountable just to their own electorate, but to us,” says James Arvanitakis, from the University of Western Sydney’s school of humanities and languages. “We demand the US stop the Iraq invasion and China do something about global warming. We also call on our government to be a good international citizen — many of us were worried about the way the world looked at us for not signing Kyoto or having mandatory detention.”

The theory of economic relativity

If we’re going to design a global political regime, we also have to remember this world didn’t evolve by committee, but from the formation of regions with very different cultures, environments and laws. Imposing a political framework that just suits our way of life would be a disaster for many who don’t share the same access to information, technology or the standards we take for granted in other aspects of life.

“The universalisation of knowledge is positive, but there’s so much room for people within and between countries to be left behind,” says Arvanitakis. “Some of my students overseas can’t access anything beyond a text-based page. What happens when I vid-cast a lecture? It’s all creating new problems.”

But we also shouldn’t take poverty studies where so many people live on only a few cents a day at face value. An Indonesian villager 200 years ago who fished for a few hours to feed his family can be considered infinitely poorer than us as we work ten hours a day to put widescreen plasma TVs on our mounting household credit card debt. But who’s better off in simple economic terms? Many cultures are only ‘poor’ when we impose our own government or financial frameworks upon them.

De facto power

It can of course be argued we already have a world government. Since abandoning political isolationism after the Second World War, the US has engaged diplomatically, economically and militarily with every corner of the world, and those that don’t subscribe to its operating modes are dealt with by means from enlistment in the WTO (China) to military invasion (Vietnam) depending on how powerful they are.

We’ve already seen how the US ignored world opinion and geopolitical consensus to invade Iraq, but it wasn’t the first time. In 1984 it simply ignored the International Court of Justice sanction against its bombing of Nicaragua and then-President Regan continued wiping the defenceless country virtually off the map with gay abandon. The US didn’t make the same mistake twice though, voting against the International Criminal Court in 1998 and effectively killing it since no international effort can survive without US support.

But now we’re entering a dangerous new historical period. Not because a shadowy, self-appointed, unelected meta-government looms — just the opposite, in fact. Historically as we enter financial crises (such as the current one spruikers with book deals keep telling us is the worst since the great depression), we tend to opt out of the brotherhood of man. Governments stoke fear of the Godless hordes over the hill coming for our jobs and women. Nations batten down the economic and political hatches, and if the US in particular returns to isolationism it spells trouble in a world where most, if not all countries rely on the US for imports, exports or aid.

Trying to head off just such a scenario, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown addressed US Congress in early March 2009, only the fifth UK PM to do so. He stoked egos and assured fealty, calling the US ‘indispensible’, but his speech was also a call to arms to strengthen ties rather than draw away from each other. Somewhat diplomatically avoiding the inconvenient truth that it was US mortgage speculators who got the world into this mess, Brown praised the innovation of US business as our chance to get out of ‘an economic hurricane’.

‘…never before have I seen a world so willing to come together,’ he told the gathering. ‘Never before has that been more needed, and never before have the benefits of co-operation been so far reaching.’

Brown may be right. If we devolve into a world of disconnected islands in lonely oceans the environment will still be slowly dying. Spam and porn will still cripple the information superhighway. There are some problems we can only address as a planet, not a collection of countries. What we need is more international co-operation, not less. Can that be different from unelected global leadership? This time, truly, the world may just depend on it.


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