Globalization was the most dramatic idea to emerge from the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war. Suddenly, it seemed, there was “one world.” US State Department official Francis Fukuyama said it first: there was now no ideological obstacle to the spread of markets and democracy. Further, it seemed highly plausible to suppose that the fall of political barriers to trade and the movement of capital would unite the world into a single economic unit. On top of this came the revolution in communications: cell phones and the Internet would, at the very least, speed up the emergence of a global consciousness. At the earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a grimmer aspect of globalization was unveiled: “global warming,” or the threat to the world’s climate from carbon emissions. Common to all these perceptions was the thought that the traditional divisions of humanity into tribes, races, nations, religions, and cultures were obstacles to the “global” thinking needed to bring about prosperity, peace, and justice to all, or indeed to avert planetary disaster.
We now know that many of the hopes aroused by the fall of communism were sheer delusion; that it was, in fact, the cold war that “froze” history; and that with its end the familiar clashes of states and religions started up again. But it was not all delusion. A World Trade Organization was set up in 1995 with 148 members. Even though it is riven by conflicts of interest, it forces the conflicting sides to confront their differences. The Kyoto Protocol limiting greenhouse gas emissions was agreed to by seventy countries in 1997—though, unfortunately, not by the United States. In international relations, the doctrine of state sovereignty is clearly in retreat—though whether it is retreating before the advance of American imperialism or regional organizations like the European Union or a reinvigorated United Nations is not yet clear. Those who commit atrocities have been put on notice that they will be held accountable for their crimes by the “international community.” Global thinking creeps forward, encountering numerous resistances, to an uncertain future.
Two important examples of this new thinking are One World: The Ethics of Globalization, by the philosopher Peter Singer, and Free Trade Today, by the economist Jagdish Bhagwati. Singer aims to overcome the tensions that have beset globalization by the application of a single perspective—that of utilitarianism. This requires us to act so as to maximize the happiness of all human beings, indeed all sentient creatures. As a philosopher, Singer seeks to interpret “happiness” in the broadest way, including in its sources everything from the environment and animal rights to international law and world health. The growing interdependence of the planet gives us, he says, a new and convincing reason to do our utilitarian duty. Singer quotes from a UN report:
In the global village, someone else’s poverty very soon becomes one’s…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.