Internationalism: Disruptive Forces are Gathering

Since 1945, the world has moved in one direction and one direction only-toward a truly global model, encompassing both politics and economics.

Since 1945, the world has moved in one direction and one direction only-toward a truly global model, encompassing both politics and economics. Today, we take that model for granted. Moreover, most of the problems and challenges our societies face are viewed through the context of globalization. Accordingly, the answers forwarded, with few (if any) exceptions, prescribe even more internationalism and globalization as the appropriate remedies.

The trend is, however, completely different: There is a growing dichotomy between globalized elites, on the one hand, and the majority of the world's population, on the other. Internationalism offers a culturally, politically and economically attractive model to elites, but is perceived by the majority of the people in developing countries as non-beneficial. This development poses a threat to the viability of the current global system.

The real danger is the growing alienation of elites from their own national populations in favor of forging closer links with elites in other countries; in essence, the growth of a new "international" elite that is increasingly disconnected from the masses. An English-speaking, Western-educated, digitally-connected elite that finds it has more in common with its peers in London, Hong Kong, Brasilia and New York than with the lower- and middle-classes in its own country bodes ill.

The majority of the population of the world is left stranded inside an increasingly obsolete and failing national framework, with no one bothering or daring to explain why internationalism, despite all its drawbacks, is the way ahead. The majority is left to mull over its fate and is also coming to a different answer; not internationalism but nationalism, not openness but seclusion, not free trade but protectionism.

There is fertile soil for this growing discontent because economic and social disparities, reflected in the "digital divide" and a lopsided educational system. The phenomena of the Internet and the mobile phone--which facilitate rapid communications and retrieval of information--are, broadly speaking, confined to the developed nations. China is the only real exception. India may be catching up. Even so, in these two countries--the most populous in the world--only a small minority has access to the wonders of information technology. Education is also increasingly stratified. A "basic" education does not guarantee that a person will be able to perform and be successful in a globalized world. In fact, access to such education depends on a person's ability to pay, either for the top level of education in their own countries, or to study in the United States or other leading Western countries. (1)

All of these trends are converging to produce an increasingly inequitable international system. Consider this: In 1820 the ratio (GNP per capita) between the richest and poorest nation was 3:1. By 1913 it had deteriorated to 11:1; in 1950 it was 31:1; in 1973 it was 44:1; and in 1992 it was 72:1. In fact, in the contemporary world, the globe's two hundred richest people control wealth equivalent to the entire gross national product of the least developed nations. Of these 200, 65 live in the United States, while 55 reside in Europe. (2)

In turn, this also contributes to increasing disparities within countries, between an internationally-oriented elite and a "sedentary" middle class. The OECD has calculated that income disparities, defined as disposable income after tax in the decade 1980-1990 grew strongly in the United States and Sweden and moderately in Australia, Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and Belgium. Only in one country--Italy--did the gap close.

All of these trends are producing an increasing concentration of power. This is especially true with regard to the conglomerates that have developed within the international system. A few examples will suffice: General Motors has sales higher than the national income of Norway; Mitsubishi has sales larger than the national income of Poland; and Shell has sales larger than the national income of Greece. In the final analysis, who would the President of China prefer to meet: Bill Gates or a Prime Minister from a small- or medium-sized European country?

This is mirrored by the increasing gap in power between the United States and other states. As a result, the United States seems to follow the path of "unilateral multilateralism", following international patterns if it suits its interests and if not, then acting unilaterally. This creates tension since it appears that the United States sees international institutions such as the United Nations as mechanisms to ratify and approve American decisions, whereas other states see the UN and similar bodies as a way to facilitate dialogue and craft solutions based on consensus. (3)