We’re All One-Worlders Now

The new politics of globalization

Slate, 25 April 1997

Back when I first joined the ranks of one-worlders, more than a decade ago, we were an easy species to describe: earnest, well meaning, and hopelessly naive. We envisioned an eventual era of global peace, a time when nationalism had lost its edge and nation-states had surrendered some sovereignty to global forums like the United Nations or even a true World Parliament. This fuzzy idealism earned us the moniker “woolly-minded one-worlders” as well as the (often correct) stereotype that we were raving lefties.

But then came the 1990s. With the Cold War over and economic globalization accelerating, the ideological map went topsy-turvy. Suddenly books giddily proclaiming The Twilight of Sovereignty were being written not by the beads-and-sandals crowd, but by capitalists (former Citibank head Walter Wriston, in the case of that title). Meanwhile, less enthusiastic tracts, with ominous titles like One World, Ready or Not, were being written by raving lefties (William Greider), who now saw the withering of the nation-state as deeply problematic.

While this new debate rages, though, one-worldism marches on. We may never get to the World Parliament phase. But the migration of governance from the national to the supranational level is proceeding apace, in lots of little but ultimately momentous ways. If this fact were more widely appreciated, globalization might get a warmer reception on the left.

The reason left and right seem to have traded places over “one-worldism” is that the term has more than one meaning. Old-school one-worlders (e.g., Woodrow Wilson) were concerned mainly with peace. The aspect of the nation-state they most wanted to constrain was aggression. What excites people like Wriston (and Newt Gingrich) is the constraint placed on a nation’s domestic policies by worldwide capitalism. Global bond markets punish national governments that splurge on safety nets. Global labor markets punish nations with a high minimum wage or costly environmental standards. “One world” now means a single planetary market that can sweep away national policies designed in a simpler era to blunt the market’s sharp edges.

Hence the sudden provincialism of liberals. Supranational bodies like the World Trade Organization and NAFTA are seen as mere lubricants of laissez faire. And for now, at least, they indeed are little more than that. Still, even the new one-worldism ought to hold some appeal for believers in the old version, like me, for three reasons.

First, remember world peace? You know—the mushy ideal that got us laughed off the stage in the first place? Supranational bodies are its friend. In the recent book War Before Civilization, Lawrence Keeley observes that trade by itself is not inherently pacifying. Indeed, the dependence it creates can be volatile. Witness Japan’s testy response, on Dec. 7, 1941, to the United States cutting off oil exports. But, as Keeley also notes, when international tribunals exist to resolve disputes, trade is generally pacifying. So the WTO should spell less bloodshed. The European Union already does.

Second, remember universal brotherhood? You know—concern for the world’s poor and downtrodden? As Paul Krugman recently noted in Slate, free trade gives millions of poor people a step up the ladder. Yes, that may mean working in a sweatshop. But these people manifestly prefer that to their prior condition. It may come as a shock to some suburban American liberals, but for children in Pakistan, the alternative to stitching Reebok soccer balls is not being driven to soccer practice in a Volvo station wagon. It’s deeper poverty.

Third, even leaving lofty universalism aside, international trade organizations can help promote a liberal agenda domestically. In Britain the left supports the European Union and the right doesn’t. One reason is that the EU meddles in national affairs with intrusive lefty regulation. Maybe the Tories are right that some of the regulation is excessive, but much of it isn’t. And, anyway, my point is just that a supranational trade body can in principle be supported by—and thus be shaped by—a center-left coalition, rather than a center-right coalition.

Consider Illustration by Robert NeubeckerNAFTA. It passed on a center-right coalition and reflects that fact. But it’s not beyond change. For negotiations to admit Chile, President Clinton wants a reluctant Congress to authorize him to include labor and environmental accords. So, if Clinton sticks to his guns (a big “if”) and prevails, we may have a new and improved NAFTA. It could, say, impose stricter environmental standards on Mexico and Chile and give Mexican and Chilean workers the right to bargain collectively. Both provisions would raise Latin American labor costs, and thus dull NAFTA’s adverse effect on some low-wage American workers. In essence, this approach would use political globalization to slow economic globalization to a slightly less jarring pace.

It is strange that so many of those most offended by globalization call themselves “progressives.” Early this century, the progressives were people who realized that communications and transportation technologies were pushing the scope of economic activity outward, from individual states to the United States as a whole. They responded by pushing economic regulation from the state to the federal level. The analogous leap today is from national to supranational regulation. Yet many of today’s progressives are economic nationalists, viewing unilateral tariffs as the policy tool of choice.

Evolutionary psychology tells us that economic intercourse is about as deeply ingrained in the human brain as any other form of intercourse. (If you doubt this, read Matt Ridley’s excellent new book, The Origins of Virtue.) That’s one reason the ever expanding scope of economic activity is essentially a force of nature—it can be guided, it can be slowed, but it can’t, realistically, be stopped. The original progressives chose to swim with this basic current of history. Many of today’s “progressives” are swimming against it.

Still, globalization is, willy-nilly, turning even progressives into de facto one-worlders. Witness the new anti-sweatshop consortium, featuring Nike, Liz Claiborne, Kathie Lee Gifford, et. al. It sets minimally humane working conditions that foreign factories must meet if their products are to sport a “No Sweat” label. And it arose not out of the goodness of Nike CEO Phil Knight’s heart, but to keep left-wing nongovernmental organizations—especially “progressive” ones—off his back. (The growing importance of supranational NGO lobbying in general is analyzed by Jessica Mathews in the January/February Foreign Affairs.) Thus the old left, intentionally or not, is pushing us from national regulation to supranational regulation—albeit, in this case, a kind of private-sector supranational regulation.

In a way, the “one-world” battle is over. Once you exclude fringe elements on both sides—Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, basically—both Democrats and Republicans accept the reality of NAFTA and the WTO even as they argue about whether these bodies should include environmental and labor laws, à la the EU. Thus, the existence of supranational bodies with significant functions of governance is no longer the issue. (Mainstream conservatives sure aren’t complaining about the WTO’s power to penalize countries that fail to open their telecommunications to foreign investment.) The issue, rather, is the perennial issue: whether governance will be to the right or the left. In that sense, we’re all one-worlders now.

In fact, we’re all one-worlders even in the old beads-and-sandals sense. Well, almost all. As this column is posted, the Senate is poised to vote on the Chemical Weapons Convention. CWC opponents may muster the 34 votes needed to prevent a two-thirds ratification vote (thanks to the earnest but clueless Jesse Helms and two of the most rabidly reactionary institutions in politics today: the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and a reptilian Cold War vestige called the Center for Security Policy). Even so, the fact remains that this unprecedentedly strong form of global arms control—the sort of thing peacenik hippies could only dream about a decade ago—now commands mainstream support: all Senate Democrats, around half of all Senate Republicans, Presidents Clinton, Carter, Ford, and Bush (and, for all we know, Reagan).

In the old days, liberals wanted peace and conservatives wanted law and order—a nice, stable environment for commerce. Many of the CWC’s Republican supporters are people who realize that, in the modern world, where neither commerce nor terrorism knows national boundaries, peace is order.