In his last speech to the U.N.’s General Assembly in September, 2016, U.S. President Barak Obama pointed to a world more prosperous yet with political and security crises. He called this combination a paradox arising from globalization—the converging of political, economic, and social systems around the world made possible by advances in technology. I contend that globalization is not the primary cause of the massive changes going on in some societies but not others (and in parts of a given society), hence Obama’s diagnosis and prescription fall short. In short, parts of some societies, and some societies as a whole were going through massive, deep changes that were reinforcing the tendency of traditional forces to resist and stay put. It is the widening of the gap, both within some societies and between them that is the real cause of the strife.
“A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the world is by many measures less violent and more prosperous than ever before, and yet our societies are filled with uncertainty and unease and strife,” Obama said. “As people lose trust in institutions, governing becomes more difficult and tensions between nations become more quick to surface.” He cited the Middle East in particular, where “basic order has broken down.” More generally, the rise of terrorism had become a significant de-stabilizing force. The world’s powers share in the blame, for the approaches to globalization had ignored the inequities they had generated. Accordingly, Obama’s prescription includes “creating a fairer global economy, enhancing democratic governance, rejecting fundamentalism and racism, and increasing international cooperation.” None of these feats would come easily.
In terms of a fairer global economy, power would have to be used to level the playing field whose slant has benefited the more powerful interests. So the problem is how to avoid the problem of how less powerful actors can take on the more powerful actors, including governments and corporations. In terms of enhancing democratic governance, the problem immediately encountered would be how to take on domestic corruption. For instance, Putin’s United Russia party was at the time accused of massive electoral fraud—so much so that the party would be able to unilaterally amend the Russian constitution. It would surely not be an easy task for the global powers to constrain Putin’s party within Russia.
Regarding getting rid of religious fundamentalism, it has tremendous staying power in the short- and medium-terms because it represents a reaction against the spread of progressive values made possible in part by the forces of globalization. Yet even without this process, the inroads of progressivism, such as “progress” in gay marriage, abortion, and pot legalization, lengthens the distance between societal segments that view “progress” as real progress and traditionalist segments that have stayed in place. With the greater distance—at least through the medium term, comes more strife because basic assumptions are no longer shared. By analogy, the more the forces behind a tectonic plate build up pressure against another plate that is staying still, the greater the force possible in an earthquake.
Therefore, I submit that Obama’s agenda for the world can be viewed as relatively superficial, as it is tied exclusively to globalization, which I submit is just one of the causes for the tremendous changes in parts of societies and parts of the world. Corruption and traditionalism are two things that have a way of staying put, even as other forces deemed in the forefront by many people (or in some societies) move further and further away. Even debating whether pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, and whether to legalize pot represent progress becomes problematic.
In short, during the time of globalization from the last quarter of the twentieth century, those forces and others, which are tied to the logic of a progressive movement in motion, the world’s societies are becoming less and less similar. The question is perhaps whether traditionalism will end up giving some ground, with the societies coming closer together. I believe the answer is: very gradually, and then only after some substantial time. Parts of societies, and even parts of the world, were on the move at the time of Obama’s last address, and this dynamic is not just caused by globalization.
1. Carol E. Lee, “Obama Urges Course Shift for World in Conflict,” The Wall Street Journal,” September 21, 2016.