World Wide Divide

Our wired, globalized world faces real and virtual borders

| March 8, 2007

Widely accepted logic says that the world is integrated like never before. Cables crisscross the ocean floor, ferrying between nations the digitized bits of e-mail, bank transactions, music, and video that flood the internet. Grocery aisles are stocked with once-exotic goods. Drive-thru orders are taken half-way across the world from where they're given. Yet at the same time, a slew of countries are erecting barriers along their national borders, sending a clear 'no thanks' to the borderless ideal of a globalized world. And those surfing the seemingly borderless internet are keeping close to home.

The clamor surrounding globalization, according to Pankaj Ghemawat of Foreign Policy has either lulled or excited us into adopting misguided beliefs about the real extent of global integration. His article, 'Why the World Isn't Flat,' is a direct response to Thomas Friedman's popular globalization treatise, The World Is Flat. Ghemawat writes, 'Despite talk of a new, wired world where information, ideas, money, and people can move around the planet faster than ever before, just a fraction of what we consider globalization actually exists.'

A hard look at the way we trade reveals much about just how connected nations are. 'Most types of economic activity that could be conducted either within or across borders turn out to still be quite domestically concentrated,' says Ghemawat. In other words, trade between countries may be easier, but most economic activity remains national, not international. As evidence, Ghemawat cites a compelling statistic: More than 90 percent of the world's fixed investment capital from 2003 to 2005 was domestic. All told, people don't often venture across their own border to invest.

Even in cyberspace -- the place where we expect a brisk free trade in ideas with little regard for borders -- national divisions remain intact. Traffic between countries has increased far slower than traffic within countries, according to Ghemawat. In theory the internet makes it easy to contact strangers in far-away places. In reality, people end up chatting with nearby friends and e-mailing officemates.

Ghemawat's observations become more urgent when he notes one particular danger of our blithe and blind attitudes toward globalization: increasing protectionism. An economics-driven globalization -- one that ignores vital differences in cultures and politics -- may lead some nations to further tighten their borders.

Many such fortifications are already under construction or being planned. Writing for the Vancouver weekly GeorgiaStraight, Gwynne Dyer calls attention to numerous border-building projects around the world. There's India's nearly completed 1860-mile barrier along its border with Pakistan, Thailand's proposed 'security fence' along its frontier with Malaysia, Kuwait's upgrade of its wall along the Iraqi frontier, and Saudi Arabia's high-tech projects to close off its borders with Yemen and, more recently, Iraq. The list goes on, including the United State's contested fence along the Mexican border and Israel's equally controversial 'security fence.'

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