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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 54-67

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Globalization and Self-Government

Marc F. Plattner

Two broad international trends have dominated the last quarter of the twentieth century and the initial years of the twenty-first: globalization and democratization. Although both globalization and democratization have long and complex histories, each was greatly accelerated by the collapse of Soviet communism in the revolutions of 1989-91. These two trends have been interrelated and, for the most part, mutually reinforcing. That is to say, globalization has fostered democratization, and democratization has fostered globalization. Moreover, both trends generally have furthered American interests and contributed to the strengthening of American power. Yet while the impact of globalization on democracy has been largely positive until now, this will not necessarily be the case in the future. As the new century unfolds, globalization may come to pose a threat to democracy and a set of difficult dilemmas for the United States.

Globalization is probably the most prominent social science "buzzword" of our day, having recently wrested that distinction from the term "civil society." Having by now read literally dozens of attempts to fix a precise definition for "civil society," I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to establish an exact, let alone consensual, meaning for such buzzwords. They simply are used and misused by too many different authors in too many different ways. On the other hand, if we are seriously to discuss the nature and potential consequences of globalization, it will hardly suffice to apply to it U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous pronouncement about obscenity: "I know it when [End Page 54] I see it." So let me try briefly to elucidate the complex of meanings, mostly complementary but sometimes contradictory, that seem to be embodied in the term "globalization."

In the first place, as the word's root suggests, globalization refers to processes that are worldwide in scope. In this sense, it all started with Christopher Columbus, for prior to the discovery of the New World there were no truly global developments, at least in the political, social, or economic realms. But if globalization is understood solely or primarily in this "planetary" sense, then not just the discoveries and conquests of the early modern era, but the European imperialism of the nineteenth century and the world wars of the twentieth have been among its most potent instruments. The metaphor that best captures this meaning of globalization is that we live in "a shrinking world," one in which developments in any part of the world—whether for good or ill—are likely to impinge on people living elsewhere, sometimes with startling rapidity.

Of course, the shrinking of the world has given rise to global cooperation as well as global conflict. Some of today's international organizations, such as the International Telecommunication Union and the Universal Postal Union, date back well into the nineteenth century. Today there are a multiplicity of such organizations covering almost every aspect of international life. And of course, the United Nations itself, in which virtually every country in the world is represented by an ambassador in New York, constitutes a formal recognition of the global order.

A further consequence of the shrinking of the world is that peoples everywhere tend to become more alike. This too is an old story. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

To the extent that races are mixed and peoples confounded, one sees the gradual disappearance of those national differences which previously struck the observer at first glance. Formerly, each nation remained more closed in upon itself. There was less communication, less travel, fewer common or contrary interests, and fewer political and civil relations among peoples; there were . . . no regular or resident ambassadors; great voyages were rare; there was little far-flung commerce. . . . There is now a hundred times more contact between Europe and Asia than there formerly was between Gaul and Spain. Europe alone used to be more diverse than the whole world is today. 1

Obviously, the tendency that Rousseau described has not only continued but...


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