The Earthling

Does Globalization Cause Terrorism or Cure It?

This is the sixth in a nine-part series on how America should fight the war against terrorism.

Our unfolding prescription for a war on terrorism would seem to go with the flow of history. To  encourage the democratization of Arab and other mainly Muslim nations is to ride in the slipstream of technological evolution, which at the moment has anti-autocrat tendencies. And steering nations toward economic modernization is largely a matter of tearing down trade barriers and letting capitalism do what it naturally does. The ongoing globalization of technology and commerce, it would seem, amounts to an autopilot anti-terrorism machine. Sounds almost too good to be true.

It is! Unfortunately, there’s Proposition No. 7: Globalization, though a large part of the solution, is also a large part of the problem.

As Bernard Lewis and others have pointed out, the modern world—featuring alcohol, satellite-beamed pornography, lapel-wearing alpha females—is an offense to traditional Islamic values. And globalization sticks modernization in the face of Muslims, whether they like it or not. Mohamed Atta didn’t have to go to Germany to see Hollywood movies or the Western skyscrapers that, in his view, scarred the landscape of Islamic architecture.

This clash of cultures, by itself, needn’t be a huge problem. Sure, the encroachment of modern values on traditional culture will create friction, including resentment and even disgust. But we’ve all felt resentment and disgust, yet few of us have killed people. Had it not been for Atta’s other issues, his economic and political frustrations, he probably wouldn’t have either. Right before his final radicalizing phase in Germany—when he apparently decided to go train with al-Qaida—he spent a few months in Egypt, where he failed to find a job and bridled at the government’s oppression of fundamentalist groups. He even saw a link between the two. His own sympathy for such groups, he felt, would keep him from getting hired by an Egyptian firm.

In short: If people everywhere had economic opportunity and political freedom, the clash of cultures that globalization brings would more often be endured without explosion. So, maybe globalization, to the extent that it’s part of the problem, is self-solving. By moving the world toward market economies and democracy, eroding the kinds of frustrations that pushed Atta over the edge, it defangs itself.

This, too, sounds too good to be true—and it, too, is. There are two main reasons.

First, in developing countries globalization can, in the short run, create economic frustrations very much like those that afflicted Atta. When traditional economies modernize, people’s skills become obsolete. Low-tech farmers can’t compete with modern conglomerates, shopkeepers lose business to chain stores, and both can wind up looking for work.

The work is usually there, but it may be a disorientingly different kind of work. The journalist Robert Kaplan has described some workplaces in the developing world as “polluted, grimy factory encampments” where migrants, freed from the norms of the rural village, are “assaulted by the temptations of the pseudo-Western city—luxury cars, night clubs, gangs, pornographic movies.”

Encouragingly, America underwent a similar transition a century ago and lived to tell about it. Back then, young men and women moved en masse from farms and small towns to cities, where they sometimes found dehumanizing workplaces, new corruptions and temptations, and few traditional moral tethers. (See, e.g., The Jungle and Sister Carrie.) But by World War II, Americans had largely equilibrated. They built stable urban neighborhoods and found new forms of community in social clubs and civic groups. And new legislation improved working conditions and empowered workers.

Still, it was a wild ride, featuring enough working-class discontent for genuine revolutionaries to briefly gain a foothold. Today parts of the developing world are taking an even wilder ride, going straight from pre-industrial agrarian lifestyles into the modern, globalized world, covering in decades a jump that the West took centuries to make. With traditional routes to status and community being rapidly redefined, there is bound to be some virulent discontent generated somewhere.

The second reason that globalization isn’t an autopilot anti-terrorism machine takes us back to Propositions 1 and 2, and the fact that big-time terrorist threats could increasingly come from somewhere other than the Muslim world. Like Montana, say. Globalization alienates some Americans and Europeans, especially rural and working-class people who feel victimized by foreign or immigrant labor or by job-killing workplace automation.

The sociologist Michael Kimmel has noted parallels between the frustrations of the American far right and those of Atta and other hijackers. American neo-Nazis and white supremacists feel “downward mobility and economic uncertainty” and are “emasculated by big money and big government.” Three years before bombing Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh wrote a letter to a newspaper blaming the American government for killing the American dream, leaving people scrounging to pay their bills. McVeigh, who had already given up on the private sector as his ticket to status (he dropped out of business college), still dreamed of being an elite soldier, but he would soon flunk out of Green Berets camp. The rest is history. Like Atta, he felt that his economy and his government had betrayed him.

In addition to the American far right, whose grievances are loosely tied to modernization and globalization, there are left-wing groups that cite globalization as an explicit grievance: environmentalists, labor activists, and so on. Most of these people are sane and safe, but almost every movement has a lunatic fringe, so antagonizing them further is not a recommended feature of an anti-terrorism strategy, given the increasingly lethal expression of discontent that technology will make possible.

In sum, we have a fact that is widely recognized but not generally linked to the war on terrorism, namely Proposition No. 8: Globalization has doubly bad short-term side effects, bringing transitional alienation to both developing and developed nations.

These transitional problems have no true cure; there’s a reason they call wrenching change wrenching change. But there is one thing that could at least dampen some of the alienation in both the developed and developing worlds. Namely, Policy Prescription No. 8: To blunt some of globalization’s sharper edges, carry political governance beyond the level of the nation-state, to the transnational level.

This approach to handling the turmoil of a modernizing and expanding economy has a good track record. A century ago in America, with industrialization roiling society and economic activity moving from the regional to the national level, progressive political leaders decided to regulate it at that level, with federal laws on interstate commerce—notably ones ensuring the safety of food and drugs—and, eventually, laws that empowered labor unions and brought dignity to the workplace. Among the benefits was convincing consumers that modernization was a good thing and blunting the appeal of Marxist revolution to workers.

Of course, one thing that made national laws feasible was the existence of a national government. When it comes to governing globalization, there’s no comparable entity. Still, the governance of globalization is possible, and in fact it is already starting to happen.

Some of it isn’t governance in a traditional sense. International nongovernmental organizations—such as the International Labor Rights Fund and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights—have negotiated with Nike, L.L. Bean, and Liz Claiborne over wages, workweeks, and child labor in their overseas clothing factories. The companies agree to the resulting codes so that their clothes can sport labels attesting to humane working conditions.

Governance in a more traditional sense—featuring actual governmental bodies—is also possible at the international level but so far is pretty skeletal. Western labor unions would like to use the leverage of the World Trade Organization to upgrade foreign working conditions—whether with child labor laws or workplace safety standards or a guaranteed right to bargain collectively, or whatever. So far they’ve been foiled, but there’s no reason in principle that the WTO can’t address labor issues and even the transnational environmental issues that concern anti-globalization activists, thus evolving from a right-wing form of governance toward the center. (The Clinton administration set a small precedent by signing a bilateral deal with Jordan that was the first American trade pact to meaningfully address labor standards.)

In favoring better working conditions abroad, American union leaders aren’t being altruistic; they just have a competitive interest in raising foreign production costs. In fact, if they were massively successful, they’d price many foreign workers out of the labor market. But political reality—the clout that corporations carry in trade policy around the world—will preclude that degree of success; foreign production costs would at most grow modestly and incrementally. So, many more foreign workers would be helped than hurt by the improvement in working conditions—just as a slight increase in America’s minimum wage helps many workers while harming a few (the ones who don’t get hired as a result of the higher labor costs).

That many workers in the developed and developing worlds share an interest in elevating developing-world labor standards is promising. It means that the lobbying of transnational governance could someday draw foreign workers, including many Muslims, into international labor coalitions that would give them salutarily friendly contact with Western peers. And higher labor standards abroad—including safer, more humane workplaces—would have the separate virtue of making the face of globalization more appealing, less alienating, in the developing world.

The influence of global governance on Westerners would also be salutary. Letting American labor and environmental activists exert meaningful influence on globalization will help keep them from demonizing it. If those scruffy leaders of anti-globalization demonstrations could be put in suits and turned into lobbyists, that would be a major advance. But they can’t be transnational lobbyists unless there’s transnational policymaking to lobby.

In the early 20th century, when America started regulating its economy at the national level, free-market purists complained that this would slow the wheels of commerce. And it presumably did—but it also helped keep society calm and intact. Today, free-trade purists will similarly complain that even modest transnational regulation would slow the wheels of commerce. And it presumably would—but it, too, would have a stabilizing effect. (Free-trade purists who have read this series so far might add that even slightly slowing the inherently unsettling transition to stable modernity would seem to violate Prescription 1: Take your bitter medicine early. But when taking the medicine more slowly makes it less bitter, that’s another matter, and that may be the case here.)

Besides, it’s pretty much inevitable that some workers and environmentalists in the developed world will find some way to slow globalization down. In the worst case they would do it violently; people on the fringes of the labor and environmental movements would engage in trade-sabotaging terrorism. Alternatively, they would do it the way it has often been done in the past: by pushing for unilateral trade barriers. Preferable to both scenarios is letting them channel their energies into transnational governance. By participating in global politics, acting in concert with peers across cultural borders, they form some of the sinews that will make a true clash of civilizations less likely. 

Full-bodied global economic governance—such as adding meaningful regulatory dimensions to the World Trade Organization—may strike some as far-fetched and in any event unconnected to the hear-and-now threat of terrorism. But if this series has one overriding theme, it’s that any good war-on-terrorism strategy has to be long-term, creative, and multi-faceted. The threats that could exist in 20 or 30 years are of a magnitude that today would strike many as unimaginable or at least highly unlikely. If some of the solutions I’m proposing seem unlikely, that may be appropriate.

And, anyway, lots of seemingly unlikely things have become real in the course of a few decades. Three decades ago it seemed highly unlikely that France and Germany would at the turn of the millennium share a single currency, not to mention a fairly dense fabric of common regulation. And three decades before that it was hard to imagine a time when war between France and Germany wouldn’t be a live possibility. But it’s all happened. International commerce on a continental scale—mini-globalization—has drawn implacable foes into a web of common interest, and the web has been sealed by transnational governance.

But enough inspiration! In the next installment we’ll get into another dark side of globalization.