11/04/2012 01:48 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Enough With the Globalization Hype

I've had it with globalization.

In my line of work, academe, it's virtually impossible these days to avoid hearing senior university officials begin a speech (especially at commencement or at a conclave of would-be financial benefactors) with the solemn observation that "we live in a globalized world," that states and borders are of diminishing significance, that higher education must be loaded with "global content" (a vacuous, unlovely, though ubiquitous, term), and that students must be taught to become "global citizens."

There isn't a single college president, provost, or dean who fails to peddle this line, which, by virtue of its ubiquity, has become a cliché. I think that there's a secret mountain somewhere whose summit these folks scale every so often to receive, from a robed sage with a long white beard, a tablet inscribed with the watchword du jour -- and these days it's "globalization."
The same seems true of politicians and op-ed columnists (above all Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Mr. Globalization). Question globalization's centrality and you risk being seen as a paid-up member of the Flat Earth Society.

Now, as someone who teaches International Relations, I'm all for students learning about the world beyond, studying abroad and mastering languages other than English. And I'll wager that very few professors or parents would disagree. I'm also aware of the paradox that we as a country are involved in multiple ways in every part of the world but don't do very well when it comes to acquiring a sound knowledge of geography, or of the history, cultures and politics of other places. That's not good, and we need to do better.

But the globalization shtick is getting stale, not just because it's become a mantra, but because it gives a false picture of the world we inhabit and presents a cartoonish view of our universities. (Yes, I know all about the complaints against higher education: point taken -- to a degree, anyway.)

Let's start with what's making the world what it is -- and changing it simultaneously. No one can deny that the advances in transportation and communication that have accelerated steadily since the Industrial Revolution (and especially following the Information Revolution) have enabled people, things and ideas to traverse borders on a scale and with a speed that's breathtaking. Since I belong to a generation that remembers the pre-Internet years (what my daughters call "the olden days," perhaps wondering whether I knew Aristotle personally), I still marvel at how one can send an email to China, for example, and get a reply minutes, even seconds, later. Ditto the ability to "access" (one doesn't simply "get" anything these days) information from sources worldwide in the blink of an eye. And yes, there are more and more problems (from climate change to human trafficking) that transcend borders, can't be solved by national policies and thus require new modes of thought and organization (even "global governance").


But that's only part of what's happening in our world. If inter-connectedness (the phenomenon of what happens "there" affecting "here," immediately and often unexpectedly) is one aspect of our reality, there are others that are no less consequential. Alongside globalization, there's regionalization. Consider, despite its less-than-healthy condition these days, the European Union. Or the African Union, the Association of South East Asian Nations, the Economic Community of West African States, and their kin.

Then there's the fragmentation of countries, incipient or actual. Look at what's happened in Mali since NATO helped the armed Libyan opposition dispatch Muammar Gaddafi. Look at Somalia, now a gaggle of statelets; Burma, where, for decades, the Shan, Kachin, and Karen have been fighting to break free from the central government; or Iraq, where the Kurdish north is a state within a state, and could become a full-fledged state. War within states, often involving horrific bloodletting among ethnic groups seeking their own state, is no less prominent a part of our world than is globalization.

And if you think fragmentation is something peculiar to the "Third World" (an oft-used but analytically useless label: the countries subsumed by it are so different, and in so many ways), think again. Spain, the United Kingdom, Canada, Russia and Belgium are all experiencing it, or have felt its pull in the past.

As to the claim that the state is becoming passé, or even far less important, that, too, is hyperbole. There's something to it, of course: distant forces that governments cannot anticipate, let alone control, affect what goes on within their borders. The shock waves from the latest global economic downturn are a case in point. Still, there's no denying that the state remains far and away the most powerful participant in world politics. It wages war, collects taxes, conscripts citizens into its army, defines the terms of trade, determines how well international and regional organizations work, and influences the lives of people who live within its frontiers more profoundly than anything on the outside does. As Syria's civil war and other internecine conflicts (Bosnia, Rwanda) show, it also takes lives, and without pity or remorse.

Those who say we've surpassed the state in the epoch of globalization should talk to Basques, Catalans, Kurds, Scots, nationalist Quebecois, Kashmiris and others. They appear not to have gotten the memo on the state's demise; a state is what they seek (or have sought). And who can deny that national interests, as represented by individual governments, have trumped European identity in the squabbling over who's responsible for the Eurozone's ills and who should pay to cure them.

Now to what students are learning in higher education. There's no question that they need to learn more about the world beyond than ever before. And you've doubtless heard -- perhaps from a university dean or president? -- all of the reasons why. But the notion that students haven't been doing so, or that they wouldn't were it not for the globalization brigades' enlightenment campaigns, is nonsense.

International languages, the histories of countless countries and regions, "area studies," and courses -- indeed departments and centers -- devoted to exploring the cultures, politics and religions of myriad places have long been part of American higher education. Ought we teach these topics better and in newer ways? Of course. But the suggestion that the research on, and teaching of, them has been static until the globalization gurus appeared to reveal the "true" path is a canard.

As for "global citizenship," I'm not entirely sure what it means. If it amounts to a plea that one should know and care more than one typically does about those living outside one's country, then that's something most reasonable people would support. But I suspect that the advocates of this universalism have something more in mind, though it's hard to know what it is from their writings. If it's that students should be taught to be as attentive and attached to those living a world away as they are to their local (however defined) and national communities, that's a pipe dream, even if one grants that the cosmopolitanism animating it is laudable. Globalization has not eliminated the significance of distance or of prevailing emotional attachments.

Globalization is a big deal. But it's not the only deal, and never will be. We live in a complicated, messy world -- one in which multiple, often contradictory, forces are at play. The push to reduce complexity to singularity ("The End of History," "The Clash of Civilization," "The West and the Rest"), while understandable, should be resisted. That's because it creates stultifying and simplistic orthodoxies. "Globalization" is no exception.