[OUTLOOK]Globalization scores a victoryThree cheers for globalization. Though the occasion ― a tsunami that claimed the lives of at least 158,000 ― is a sickening tragedy, the cheers are in order.
Globalization in the minds of many has always been associated with bad things: lost jobs, outsourcing and the leveling of local traditions. Now globalization is being associated with an entirely good thing. For the first time, almost the entire world is coming together in an unprecedented relief effort. It is the globalization of goodness.
Countless nations have pledged $2 billion worth of aid to the stricken Asian region, the highest such sum ever. From the United States to Germany, from Australia to Japan, governments are dispatching aid workers, supplies, hospital units and air transports. The first truly global disaster has generated the first truly global help effort.
And it is not just governments. Crisscross the Western world, pick up any newspaper, and you’ll find daily announcements naming organizations plus their bank accounts into which private citizens can pay their charitable contributions. The giving around the world has turned into a tsunami of its own. It is an endless wave of giving and helping.
So globalization is not just about ever faster communication and ever larger trade and investment. It is not just about more competition and displacement of inefficient producers. It is also about a growing global consciousness that we are all in this together, no matter that we live 10,000 kilometers away from the site of the disaster.
Indeed, without globalization, we would not have learned so quickly about this horror. Nor could we have communicated so efficiently for the purpose of pulling together our resources.
To be compassionate, you first have to know what is happening to the victims. Though you cannot feel somebody else’s pain, you can now see it in real time. And to watch the horror is to be touched by it. Without satellite TV, without e-mail and Internet, the catastrophe would have remained abstract and distant ― something that affects others, but not us. And without globe-circling jet planes, the world could not have reacted so quickly with food, medicine and physicians.
There is another much-maligned factor at work here, too: global tourism. It may sound a bit cynical, but it is nonetheless true. Places like Phuket in Thailand or the coast of Indonesia pluck at our heartstrings because so many of us in the West have vacationed there or had friends and relatives right in the middle of the nightmare. Does anybody remember the earthquakes that devastated China in 1920, 1927 and 1976? The death toll was as large or even larger than today: 200,000 in 1920, 200,000 in 1927 and 255,000 in 1976.
But there was no television in those days, nor the real-time transmission of information. These disasters recall an old question of philosophy: If a tree falls in the forest, and there is nobody to hear or watch the event, did the tree actually fall? Thus with human disasters: Before we can actually respond to them, we must see, hear and feel them. This is why the Chinese earthquakes attracted hardly any attention, let alone help.
But because of globalization, the tragedy in South Asia unfolded right next door, so to speak. Compassion requires the compression of distance and time, and this is precisely what globalization has done.
Globalization means that tsunamis and earthquakes are no longer local tragedies. It follows that not only the relief action today, but also the defense against such calamities tomorrow must be global. Because the world was not prepared for such a mega-catastrophe, we are now watching good intentions coming to naught, as huge logistical obstacles stand in the way of distributing food, equipment and medicine. It is easy to get those crates to Jakarta and Bangkok airports, but the real test is to haul the supplies to the devastated coastlands.
For the world community, the task is all too clear. We need an IRF, an International Relief Force that would be ready to move at a moment’s notice. It would be equipped like an army, except without guns. It would have planes, trucks, communication equipment, up-to-date maps and detailed local knowledge. It would have basic stock piles, doctors on call, portable generators and water-purification plants. The force would rely on a global system of detection and warning devices so that the enemy, Nature, could never again achieve the “strategic surprise.” This would be a wonderful project for the United Nations and the rich countries of the West (as well as Japan, South Korea and China).
Globalization has opened our eyes to the global dangers threatening mankind, but globalization has also delivered the defenses against such threats. All we need now is the missing institutional framework. Can we fashion one? We should, for the simple reason that tsunamis and quakes will strike again and again.
We can’t keep nature from attacking us again, but we can make sure that we won’t be surprised again and that we can fight back swiftly and efficiently. Victory will be defined in terms of lives saved. What could be a more noble triumph?
* The writer, the editor of Die Zeit, a German weekly, is a visiting professor of political science at Stanford University.
by Josef Joffe