On the beat with the world police

Debating Globalisation
September 23, 2005

After a summer divided between the G8 counter-summit and a neoliberal economics conference, I approached Debating Globalisation with apprehension. Too often in my search for productive engagement at these events, I had met preachers isolated by their dogmatic fervour or opponents locked into narrow and highly personalised arguments. It was a revitalising surprise to read this diverse collection of carefully reasoned responses to an introductory essay by David Held (of the London School of Economics and openDemocracy.net), and a lively dialogue between contributors. Even more unusually, the authors do not stop at mere fault-finding but proffer their own alternative solutions, and Held concludes the book by reflecting on their suggestions.

This framework lends itself well to constructive debate and creates a satisfyingly self-contained dialectic that nonetheless provides many threads to be unravelled (with the aid of the varied bibliography). Simply observing the intellectual sparring as ideas are explored is enjoyable in itself: questions are answered, gaps filled and arguments counter-balanced.

But despite the satisfying methodology of the debate, crucial topics remain untouched or unresolved.

Compressing such an enormous and controversial issue into such a slim volume inevitably restricts its scope, but the selection of essays that deal in broad abstractions only exacerbates the problem. Issues such as global warming, transnational corporations, democratic engagement and cultural divisions are flashpoints in the globalisation debate and require more than tangential references.

For example, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Thomas Hale give a mere paragraph to the intriguing question of America's "Christian values" and their role in an integrated global policy. John Elkington demands better regulation of corporate interests, but spends just a few lines on this fiendishly complex problem. Kofi Annan implores Americans to question their presidential candidates about debt relief, but this is the only mention of the disengagement of Western voters. Mary Kaldor's analysis of human security is the most detailed and practical proposal, but is relegated to an appendix. The best debates on globalisation have breadth and depth, and this debate would have benefited from a couple of chapters devoted to actual policies, addressing specific issues.

The discourse would also have been enriched by a closer examination of the basic assumptions on which the writers rely, ranging from Patrick Bond's "genuine human rights" to Martin Wolf's theory of "development". If the argument is to progress, each assertion must be justified and each step explained, so that all parties fully understand the language used, and all theories are built on solid foundations. Roger Scruton's contribution is unique in its rigorous attempt to analyse the meaning of such terms as "equality, social justice, internationalism". At least one more essay scrutinising the vocabulary of the globalisation debate would have contributed immeasurably to its quality.

It is not just the principles that demand definition, but also the institutions that are proposed to protect them. Despite the energetic exchange of ideas over a global covenant or compact, the flaws of the existing institutions regarded as reliable templates are left woefully unexamined. There is general consensus on the deplorable conditionality of International Monetary Fund loans, but no analysis of its decision-making structure; the failed CancNon and Doha trade rounds are described, but the dysfunction of the World Trade Organisation is not investigated.

Most strikingly, although the UN is used throughout the book as the archetypal global regulatory body, not a single contributor researches its history - at a time when the UN's modus operandi is facing global criticism. Only in his second essay in the very last pages does Held link the postwar selection of UN permanent members and the enshrinement of geopolitical power interests at the expense of equality and human rights.

This is not to undermine the internal coherence of the majority of the book's arguments, but if they are to carry weight they must engage with the structural realities of current institutions.

Nevertheless, as a self-styled introduction, Debating Globalisation is broadly successful in transcending traditional antagonisms so as to pursue a fruitful discussion. If it raises as many questions as it answers, it will, one may hope, galvanise readers into their own investigations.

Zoe Sprigings is studying history at Oxford University.

Debating Globalisation

Editor - Anthony Barnett, David Held and Caspar Henderson
Publisher - Polity in association with OpenDemocracy
Pages - 205
Price - £45.00 and £12.99
ISBN - 0 7456 3524 5 and 3525 3

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