It's a small, small world.” If that was true back in the 1950s, how much more so in the '90s, especially after quantum advances in telecommunications, data processing and transportation. An unprecedented abundance of information and contact with other cultures and peoples combined with increasing economic interdependence makes for an ever tighter “global community.” The typical geographical frame of reference for millions is fast becoming not one's hometown, city, or even country, but the world.
Globalization, then, is not a theoretical proposal sitting on some drafting table, but an existing reality. Asking whether globalization would be a good idea is like asking the same about motor cars and airplanes. While scratching our heads over the dilemma, globalization steams ahead without waiting for anyone's approval. Thus the question becomes not whether to globalize, but how to ensure that the globalization process benefits almost everyone.
In last fall's Synod for America much was said about this thorny topic. Participating bishops, especially from Latin America, repeatedly voiced concerns for the well-being of their people in the face of a global economy. The implacable advance of a one-world market is often seen as a threat to personal and national sovereignty, and poorer countries would prefer not to be caught under the global steamroller when it comes barreling through. Nor would they like to be left out. The trick seems to be participating without being flattened in the process.
The bishops'fears are not the product of an overactive pastoral imagination or skittishness in the face of rapid technological progress. They reflect very real hazards. The chief dangers of globalization can be summed up in four points.
l Interdependence between two unequal partners generally results in disproportionate dependence of the weaker on the stronger. The stronger party winds up with coercive power that spills over into other sectors of society (witness the heinous population control programs imposed on Third World countries as a condition for economic favors).
l Many countries do not possess the requisite economic, juridical, and political stability to dive headlong into the world market. Economic crises and shifts in investment patterns, easily absorbed by stronger nations, can be fatal to more precarious economies.
l The national identity of less developed countries, with their distinctive cultural and historical characteristics, is at stake. Many of these countries fear that an impersonal global culture, with its consumerist tint, will sweep away the values that are most precious to them.
l Wary investors readily pass over less productive or economically unattractive countries, and such nations risk being left without a seat at the playing table.
Faced with of this scenario, what is to be done? In a recent article in the International Herald Tribune John Sewell and Michael McDowell of the Overseas Development Council proposed a “globalization summit” of two dozen representative heads of state from both the economically powerful and the more vulnerable nations to hash out current difficulties and forestall future problems. “We must ensure that the benefits of globalization reach all,” state the authors, “creating greater wealth for all. If the poorest countries are unable to reap the benefits of globalization, then we are all poorer.”
No newcomer to the issue, Pope John Paul II has repeatedly affirmed that the “solution” to globalization lies in solidarity. In his message for the 1998 World Day of Peace, John Paul wrote that “[t]he challenge, in short, is to ensure a globalization in solidarity, a globalization without marginalization.” His vision of a “family of nations” comprises not only economic interdependence, but especially a mutual striving for the common good, and a particular spirit of responsibility for the weaker among us. The Holy Father provided a comprehensive treatment of the subject of solidarity in his 1987 encyclical on the social question, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. He points out that solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress” at the plight of other peoples or nations, but rather “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is, to the good of all and of each individual” (38).
“Solidarity,” the Pope continues, “helps us to see the ‘other’— whether a person, people, or nation — not just as some kind of instrument … but as our ‘neighbor,’ a ‘helper,’ to be made a sharer, on par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God” (39). In other words, other peoples and nations are not merely “human resources” or “new markets” to be exploited, but our brothers and sisters for whom we bear responsibility. In making decisions that affect others — whether political, corporate, or individual — we must take into account not only personal gain but also the good of the other.
Globalization, then, is not a demon to be exorcised but a bull to be tamed. Properly harnessed it furnishes an immense force for development, both economic and cultural. We must be vigilant, however, to keep the human person at the center of our concern, lest he be trampled. If human solidarity keep pace with economic globalization, we can be sure that the “family of nations” will one day be a reality.
Father Thomas Williams is rector of the general directorate of the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.