Is “Global” a Dirty Word?

Some see the increase in nationalism throughout the world as a backlash to globalization. For many, a highly interconnected world has weakened, rather than strengthened, quality of life.

Many politicians now question if retreating from a global economy is in the best interests of their countries.

Is global, then, a dirty word?

That was the question recently discussed by the Indiana University Center for the Study of Global Change’s Graduate Study Group in Global Studies. The group aims to provide a platform for graduate students whose research is concerned with global phenomena and who seek a collaborative and interdisciplinary working group that supports their global research and scholarship.

Joining the graduate students’ interdisciplinary discussion was historian and Assistant Professor Stephen Macekura. Macekura’s research focuses on political economy, international development, U.S. foreign relations, and environmentalism.

“Coming together to discuss these issues is important to show a desire to engage and discuss global issues in face of rising nationalism,” Macekura said.

He likened today’s challenge of globalization as a refutation of the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” a belief that global prosperity would mitigate military and class conflicts.

For Macekura, today’s global order arose from the aftermath of World War Two. Principally, the redefining of the world’s power structure produced assumptions that

  • Non-discriminatory trade would entwine nation-states
  • Such economic entanglement would lead to greater global economic prosperity
  • Economic interdependence would prevent totalitarian war on a global scale

We are now, though, entering an era defined by populism and national self-interests.

Populism itself is a fraught term, but it is generally agreed that it (populism) is a tool to organize disenfranchised groups behind a strong leader. Such a leader argues that only they can return prosperity and worth to the followers.

As a concept, populism is marked by its indirect connection to ideas of a nation-state. It shares the idea of representation of all citizens of a country, and it is further highlighted by its deep distrust of those seen as elite members of society. The elites often singled out as influencers and message-makers: politicians and journalists.

While many countries are leaning toward nationalism and have expressed interest in removing themselves from the global order, other countries see new opportunities through globalization to exert their influence.

China, for one, over the years has embarked on a development strategy in Africa. China’s increased influence in Africa could be a way to lay claim as the world’s preeminent power, though some argue China is not ready to assume a role as the global leader.

China’s influence is a mostly free market with parameters. That is, a mix of capitalistic monetary policies and infrastructure development combined with authoritarian control. Macekura suggests that this “Beijing consensus” is appealing to many African leaders because it allows them to maintain populist control of a society by a select few.

What has compelled Western democracies to retreat from globalization?

A protest camp with the Schwabinggrad Ballett. (Photo by Rasande Tyskar. Flickr Creative Commons.)

Internal inequality seems a likely culprit.

Macekura suggested that focusing on globalization processes on a large scale prevented an internal inventory of how working and middle class people have often been left out.

Such oversight opens doors for populist leaders to construct common enemies of the people. These enemies can be real or imagined, but they hold one key trait: they prevent a citizenry from directing their outrage at those who have either adopted policies that result in decreased real world wages, or otherwise fail to uphold a country’s social contract.

China’s strategy is illustrative of this concern.

“China’s great leap forward rose out of favored trade status with the U.S., which opened U.S. marketplace to Chinese goods. If the U.S. closes off then China will need to develop markets in other areas of the world,” according to Macekura.

As the world’s leaders appear to step away from the global stage, we are left with a question.

Where do we go from here?

You can follow us on Twitter: @FramingGlobal.