The Borders Are Closing

Et tu, Holland? The Dutch were supposed to be the poster children for globalization’s virtues. Few other countries can claim as cosmopolitan a heritage as the Netherlands, and few other countries have benefited more economically from their tolerant culture at home and the erosion of national boundaries elsewhere.

And yet the Dutch, of all people, are now souring on globalization. Three days after French voters registered their resounding “non” to the European Union’s new constitution, polls show Dutch voters poised to do the same today. Even if the “yes” vote manages a surprise comeback, it’s a damning sign of the times -- this was never supposed to be cliffhanger. The Dutch, the top per capita contributors to the EU’s budget, have been freewheeling globalists since their commercial empire extended to New York and Indonesia in the 17th century.

So if it’s hit prosperous Holland, the backlash against globalization can be said to be nearly universal, and it’s one more way in which the exuberant “fin de millennium” promise of the 1990s has been dashed in this decade. It seems like only yesterday that it was in vogue to claim that night was falling on the era of the nation-state. It was one of those themes people breathlessly discussed when not breathlessly discussing Bill Clinton’s sex life or whether to day-trade CSCO or JDSU stock. Among the reasons cited for the nation-state’s decline were the end of the Cold War (and of history, according to Francis Fukuyama and his acolytes) and the accelerating technological revolution that shrank the world and made all sorts of boundaries more elastic.

The 1992 book “The Twilight of Sovereignty” by Walter Wriston, a former Citicorp chairman, was a manifesto for corporate executives who did not want to be tethered to one nation, and Kenichi Ohmae’s influential book, “The End of the Nation State: The Rise of Regional Economies,” published in 1995, asserted that the rest of the world would soon follow the example of Europe, where cities such as Barcelona, Marseilles and Genoa saw themselves belonging to a Mediterranean economy rather than to separate countries.


The nation-state has made quite a comeback, as illustrated by the growing reluctance of Europe’s electorates to surrender more sovereignty to Brussels. In the U.S., the same backlash against globalization is stalling efforts to liberalize immigration policy and enact more free trade pacts. Even a modest deal with Central America has Congress in knots as labor unions warn of the competitive threat posed by such titans as El Salvador.

It’s a nervous time, best captured by an indignant Lou Dobbs droning on about our broken borders. Presumably every country has its Dobbs, which is one reason the World Trade Organization’s Doha round of talks aimed at making trade rules more equitable to the developing world has stalled. In Latin America, sovereignty’s rising political fortunes have meant a sharp turn away from free markets.

Are China and India to be the last true believers in the promise of globalization? Nobody elsewhere seems to be pounding the table on behalf of the idea that we all stand to gain from greater interdependence. Clinton, who loved talking about the outside world as an opportunity instead of a threat, and whom the outside world loved back, has left office. There is a dearth of global figures who command moral authority and widespread respect -- certainly Kofi Annan doesn’t.

Business leaders, once globalization’s most enthusiastic prophets, have retreated into their shells. The bursting of the Nasdaq bubble and the raft of corporate scandals made them nervous about sounding too Pollyannaish about the new world order, and the Sept. 11 attacks made them nervous about sounding too worldly and insufficiently patriotic. Expectations had been set far too high for what technology and globalization could deliver in the short term, which is why people today feel duped, angry and eager to reassert their national sovereignty.

Sept. 11 was the ultimate blow to globalization’s promise, in part because the attack was so unexpected. If dread and hints of war haunted Europe throughout the 1930s, the lead up to 9/11 was innocently utopian. Thereafter, the leading superpower of the day, the United States, retreated into full national-interest-first mode. The Bush administration, which has proved far more protectionist on trade than Clinton’s, was already headed in that unilateralist direction with its earlier disavowals of 1990s-style humanitarian military interventions and collective action on matters like global warming.

Now, to the extent that President Bush talks with any conviction about cross-border cooperation or integration, it’s always in the context of the war on terrorism, and in the narrowest of terms. This leaves a terrible void that encourages further retreat and retrenchment here and elsewhere.