The Straits Times
Globalisation's Long History
—Barry Hing

THE opponents of globalisation, particularly those in the West, like to paint an almost Rousseau-like image of the world before it was - they claim - spoiled and ravaged by multinational companies, free trade, discounted consumer goods and trendy coffee chains. Countries and communities somehow lived in splendid isolation and self-sufficiency.

Such populist reactions against globalisation - as distinct from more measured and intellectual approaches - have become indelibly associated with the violence that erupted at the summit of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999.

Today, violent protests have become a feature when world leaders meet. Witness the demonstrations held against this week's G-8 meeting at Heiligendamm in Germany, while the Australian government, in well-worn anticipation, plans an almost total lock-down of the central business district in Sydney for the Apec economic leaders' meeting in early September.

But more recently, anti-globalisation among the world's more affluent societies has assumed more subtle forms. Campaigns to 'buy local produce' and strike a blow against food imports are gaining momentum. With their attendant sense of self-righteousness and convenient omission of any mention of the Chinese or Filipino family trying to trade its way out of poverty, they have strong appeal for a comfortable middle class looking for moral purpose.

In this context, Mr Nayan Chanda's Bound Together is a timely reminder of how global exchanges lie at the very basis of human society and have been a feature of its history or histories since the time, as he says, that our common ancestors migrated out of Africa. His book points to this in one headline: 'The Yellow Emperor's Black Mama.'

Mr Chanda's book is an impressive discussion of the trends in, and details of, the intercourse - material, human and intellectual - that has always taken place between countries and societies, often separated during ancient times by tyrannically long distances. Contact between the Roman and Chinese empires was, for example, a regular feature of imperial life and each side knew more of the other than is generally believed. For most societies, isolation and self-sufficiency have always been more myth than reality.

Mr Chanda is well qualified to explore the issues he has set himself, and his own life is a lesson in the age-old global mobility of labour. Born in India, he became one of Asia's most respected journalists, working for a long period in Hong Kong for the Far Eastern Economic Review news weekly (where he was editor), as well as for the Wall Street Journal. He is now director of publications at the Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation, as well as the editor of YaleGlobal Online.

Throughout his book, Mr Chanda makes many attempts at defining globalisation and comes up with some interesting statements: 'Belief in an idea with universal application has tied the world together for more than two millennia. Global awareness has just become more instantaneous and its consequences, for better or worse, more immediate.

'The term globalisation, reflecting awareness of these global connections, grew out of the very process it describes - a process that has worked silently for millennia without having been given a name.'

Underlying his argument as to how integration has worked, Mr Chanda's book is subtitled 'How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers And Warriors Shaped Globalisation'. He sees these players as driving forces and who all have their modern-day equivalents. For example, proselytisers, whether for Buddhism, Christianity or Islam, played a major role in creating a more linked-up world.

Among the other numerous subjects Mr Chanda examines is how common commodities, such as pepper and sugar, have played crucial roles in building and reinforcing the world's interconnectedness from way back.

Moreover, the flow of effects and influence has not just been from the West, as many of the opponents of globalisation make out, but is multi-directional. And not just intellectually, as in the European use of Arab advances in mathematics, but also in less obvious areas.

For instance, coffeehouses spread from Muslim Asia Minor to Christian Europe, with the first opened by a Turkish Jew. Mr Chanda argues that 'Starbucks, the much-hated poster child of globalisation, is in fact the latest in many incarnations of coffee as it has travelled the world beyond the hills of Ethiopia'. Old wine in new bottles?

The world, it seems, had started to spin round and round long before the WTO, while trade and exchange in goods or intellectual assets are hardly new concepts.

Mr Chanda is upfront in his ability to point out the achievements of globalisation, especially how hundreds of millions have, in its current phase, been lifted out of poverty. But he is very mindful of the arguments against it and that, for many, it is linked indelibly with curses such as environmental devastation, cheap labour, disease and human trafficking.

Will globalisation continue? Political responses can channel or obstruct the currents that feed it, leading to a change in course but, unlike before, the stakes now are much higher, and millions in countries who have long been condemned to poverty now see opportunity and hope.

'Calls to shut down globalisation are pointless, because nobody is in charge, but together we can attempt to nudge our rapidly integrating world toward a more harmonious course - because we are all connected,' Mr Chanda concludes.

And while those well-off residents in the West who so strongly push for 'buying locally' are within their rights to buy from whom they wish, even if it's mainly on the basis of who the producer is, this lesson of interconnectedness and interdependence is a point that they should also be especially mindful of.

—Barry Hing is a Sydney-based writer.

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