The Growing Challenge to Internationalism

By Moller, J. Orstrom | The Futurist, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Growing Challenge to Internationalism


Moller, J. Orstrom, The Futurist


The world's elite have led the march toward globalism, but millions of people see themselves as losers when national barriers fall.

Tensions are building up around the world over the internationalization of the world's economy. There may soon be a clash between the continued drive for internationalism - favored by the elite in countries everywhere - and the growing feeling of ordinary people that internationalism lets them down and fails to provide an answer to the problems they face.

If such a clash really happens - and the risks that it will are larger than most people like to think - we will have to go back to the drawing board to redesign our basic models for future economic progress. A clash will also pose an acute security problem because it will rip apart the basic fabric of society, letting loose all the emotions that traditionally lead to war and conflict. It will be a major trend shift - one of the largest and most important in many decades.

We have all grown accustomed to internationalism, and we now take it for granted. Since the end of the Second World War, all major changes have gone in the same direction - more and more internationalism, including increasing trade, capital flows, investment, research and development, dissemination of knowledge, and persons moving across the borders, working and attending universities in other nations.

It has been taken for granted for so long that nobody seems to notice the gradually increasing signals that we may be in for a major shift in the trend. Waning support for internationalism may lead not only to a halt in further internationalization but a pull back toward nationalism.

The Rise of Internationalism

What has happened to the world in the last 50 years can be ranked as one of the great revolutions. The world has managed to live without major wars, and, at the same time, it has succeeded in building a sophisticated and effective political framework at the international level.

These achievements resulted from an alliance between the elite and the rest of the population in the various countries. The elite pointed the way. It persuaded the people to follow, regardless of the doubts that surfaced. The population went along, not because they shared the long-term political objectives, but because the new division of labor (and other factors) brought about a higher standard of living. The economic integration of Europe took place in the midst of an almost unprecedented economic upswing, which increased people's standard of living year after year. The Asian miracle did the same, first in Japan, later in the Tiger economies, and finally in China. People everywhere assented to internationalism because it was so obvious that everybody was better off. Or, to be more precise, the old prescription of an increase in welfare proved valid: Those who benefited could pay for benefits to those who did not benefit and still be better off themselves.

As the basic economic factors such as trade and capital movement ascended from the national to the international level, the legislative framework to control the basic economic factors followed, albeit with a time lag. The Europeans set up the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union. In North America, a similar development resulted in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). None of these institutions would have been created without a genuine and strong demand for international institutions to replace national institutions obviously incapable of delivering solutions to an international world.

But now a new shift is occurring: Around the world, ordinary people - not the political and intellectual elite - are asking whether the international system really delivers the goods. Are we better off participating in that system or would it be preferable to turn around and begin a nationalistic policy? This questioning of the predominantly Western international system often arises among ethnic or religious groups inside a nation that is fully participating in the international model and the international world.

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