Globalization and the American Way of Thinking
This paper was presented at the Myongji Conference on Globalization in Fall 2002

In a short paper for a panel like today’s one can only make a few quick points.  You may conclude from my criticism of the dominant mode of globalization today that I am “anti-globalization.”  Actually, that label does not fit me, nor many who think like me.  I think globalization is an irreversible process that is neither good nor bad in its essence.  What I am critical of is the dominant form of globalization—globalization to further the agenda of the transnational corporation and American national power at the expense of ordinary people around the world.

The points I have chosen to make here are deliberately designed to be provocative. I am not so much presenting careful, scholarly research as trying to stimulate thought and discussion.  So if the panelists and/or audience members are moved to disagree with my comments I will have actually achieved my purpose.

Point #1: Globalization has not affected the U.S. as much as it has affected the rest of the world.

Point #2: What is commonly called globalization is really largely a one way transmission of values and behaviors. Globalization is often just a more polite word for westernization.

Not long ago I was teaching a lesson on generational differences in a class here in Korea on culture.  I asked my Korean students to suggest values that they associated with the older generation here in Korea and the values they associated with their peers and younger generation Koreans. I compiled two separate lists on the board recording the student’s comments.  I don’t remember the exact terms we came up with, but most of you can imagine what we found.  Older generation values were things like respect for elders, family obligation, hard work, saving money, distrust of foreigners, social hierarchy, etc.  Younger generation values were things like freedom, individualism, romantic love, consumerism, interest in foreign languages and culture, etc.  It occurred to me as we were doing the exercise that the values young Koreans chose as their generation’s were exactly the values we would have used to describe the American or Western or modern culture vs. historic Korean culture.  I asked them if they could find any “young Korean” values different from American/western values.  Neither they nor I could come up with any.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to name any basic American cultural values that come from anywhere outside the U.S. or Europe.  When I was teaching in Japan, one student, noting the mania for English study in his country, asked me what languages were popular to study in the U.S.  I began listing them—Spanish, French, and perhaps German.  I could tell from the disappointment in his expression that he had hoped Japanese would be high on the list.  So I decided not to tell him at that moment that, unlike most educated Asians and Europeans, actually most Americans never learn much of any foreign language, that they have come to expect others to learn English.

Globalization is affecting some aspects of American life—the food we eat, the music we listen too, etc.  But so far it has little impact on our values or our way of thinking.

Point #3: Globalization has increased the ability of the wealthy in the U.S. to extract wealth from the rest of the world.

This is more an economic than a cultural point but it relates to many of the following points.  In the 1990s the U.S. sustained the longest economic expansion in its history, spurred by the growth of the IT industry, but even more by the huge demand by people around the world for dollars and dollar denominated investments.  New forms of electronic transfers made it possible to move massive amounts of money around the world at the speed of light.  Deregulation of financial markets around the world has become a dominant ideology, justified in the name of making full use of the new technological tools.

Of course, now the U.S. economy is in recession and the value of the dollar has dropped somewhat.  But if a global downturn persists, many foreign investors will still see the U.S. and the dollar as the safest refuge in hard times.  Throughout the East Asian financial crisis a few years ago, when the regional economy faltered, it was dollars and dollar denominated investments Asians flocked to.

Not only is financial capital moving rapidly across borders.  So is human capital.  Most of the rest of the world has long been experiencing a “brain drain” of highly educated and trained doctors, engineers, scientists, businessmen, and artists to the United States where they so often can reap greater economic rewards for their expensive education and training.  In the 19th century most of the factory workers who made the U.S. the world’s leading industrial country were recent immigrants fleeing poverty and/or oppression in southern and eastern Europe.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, many of the engineers and entrepreneurs who are keeping America the leading global economic power are highly skilled immigrants attracted by the high pay and free-wheeling life-style in the U.S.  These new immigrants are also coming from different parts of the world, a pattern that will be discussed more in points # 6 and #7.

Point #4: The American based multinational corporation is rapidly becoming the transnational corporation, which owes no loyalty to any nation-state.  Culturally, this means that the people who run American businesses think and act less and less like American citizens.

In the terminology I am using here, a multinational corporation is a company that has a home office in one country but does business in many countries.  Thus, it has a distinct national character.  Japanese keiretsu and Korean chaebol do business around the world, but their management is overwhelmingly Japanese or Korean.  Headquarters in Tokyo or Seoul make all important decisions and their leaders think of their companies as Japanese or Korean companies doing business abroad.  If you are a Korean, just think about the different feelings you have toward a Samsung-made vs. a Sony-made audio system.

But what is the nationality of Nike, the athletic shoe manufacturer?  Nike’s headquarters is in Portland, a city on the American West Coast.  But that may be the least important fact about Nike.  A Nike shoe might be manufactured by workers in Thailand, from components made in China and the Philippines, from resources extracted from Indonesia and Vietnam, for a company owned in Korea, to specifications developed in Japan, and then marketed in the Middle East, via an advertising campaign designed in Great Britain.  In a recent TV broadcast of the Asian Games I even saw North Korean spectators wearing caps with the Nike logo.  It would be an interesting exercise to trace all the different countries that contributed to the manufacture and distribution of those caps.

Nike is not unique.  The ever more important IT industry is just one example of high-tech manufacturing that increasingly transcends national borders.  If you analyzed the design, production, and marketing of your PC, you would find a story similar to that of the Nike sports shoe.

Managers from Korean and Japanese multinationals who are sent to run operations abroad usually receive intensive training in differences in production and distribution in the host country.  In contrast, the ownership and management of a transnational company is to one degree or another a true fusion of points of view from around the world.

Point #5: The area where globalization has most directly affected the ordinary American citizen is in the culture of work.  Paradoxically, globalization of the American economy has a “back to the future” quality returning the American worker to his/her position of the 19th century.

In the 19th century the American worker was largely at the mercy of powerful market forces.  In the 20th century the rise of the trade union, collective bargaining, and the welfare state cushioned the American worker from the worst exigencies of the market.  But globalization makes it easier and easier for corporations to run away from trade unions, environmental regulation, and even taxes by doing business where unions or regulation are not factors.  The globalization of production has been taking jobs away from American workers as fast as it has been creating them.  Globalization, when coupled with pro-business economic policies, is pushing the wages of American workers down to international levels.  While globalization makes the rich richer, ordinary workers are becoming less and less secure in their jobs and income.

While the American economy was going through the longest period of growth in its history in the 1990s, average workers wages remained stagnant, virtually the same at the end of the boom as they were in the 1980s.  At the same time some American workers were accumulating burgeoning stock portfolios, most were also looking over their shoulders to see if their jobs would be there tomorrow.  The American worker has to increasingly regard the guy working next to him/her not as his fellow-worker, but as a competitor come the next round of lay-offs.  This is why trade unions are one of the few American institutions to struggle against U.S-led globalization.

Point #6: Globalization is changing American immigration patterns.

Point #7: Globalization is changing the mix of American subcultures.

Everyone knows that the United States is a nation of immigrants.  Those who understand American history know that there has been a constant tension between new immigrants and those whose families have been in the U. S. for many generations.  This tension is based not only on old vs. new but also stems from differences in countries of origin.  In the British colonies, immigrants from Sweden, Germany, France, etc. were not entirely trusted.  In the 19th century the basic conflict was between established Protestants and tens of millions of new immigrants from Catholic or Eastern Orthodox nations like Italy, Ireland, Poland, Greece, and Russia (as well as Jews).  However, from 1920-1965 legal immigration was tightly controlled and kept largely to those from northern European Protestant countries.  In 1965 immigration policies based on country of origin were abolished.

Today global transport, communication, and financial transactions are immeasurably easier than in the past, and this is dramatically changing who comes to the U.S.  Now most of the new immigrants (legal and illegal) come from Latin America and Asia.  It is estimated that on any given day between 3-5% of the entire population of Mexico (roughly 2-4 million people) is in the United States, most of them illegally.  The Latino population is now the largest racial minority in the U.S., surpassing African-Americans at 14% of the population and rising quickly.  The percentage of Asian-Americans has risen even more quickly, from a small fraction of a percent to 3 or 4 percent today.  All scientific population studies project that by the middle of the 21st century a majority of Americans will be non-white, with Latinos second to whites, and Asian-Americans passing African-Americans as the third largest racial category.

There is a “back to the future” quality to changing immigration patterns as well.  In the 19th and early 20th century there were fears that the historical White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture of America would be overwhelmed by immigrants coming from lands with different religions, traditions, and values.  Today there are much more powerful means to acculturate new immigrants, often even before they get to the U.S.—TV, Hollywood, the internet, etc.  But these same tools allow new immigrants to stay much more closely tied to their home countries as well.  Satellite TV, Bollywood, internet chat rooms, etc. also allow new immigrants to stay much more tightly connected to their culture of origin than ever before.

The new pattern of immigration is reviving a very old political conflict.  Who exactly is an American?  Is American culture WASP culture, WASP culture spiced by exotic subcultures, or a new multicultural formation?

The new pattern of immigration is also raising serious challenges to the dominant interpretations of globalization.  Not long ago on BBC I saw an Arab woman living in England arguing that if globalization requires free flow of capital across national borders logically it should also allow free flow of labor across national borders.  If labor should not be allowed to flow freely, then why should capital?  George Bush would have a tough time answering that one.

Point #8. Globalization has fed the already huge American narcissistic urge to remake the rest of the world in its image.

Even before the United States was an independent nation, the early Puritan colonists saw their communities as an example for the rest of the world to follow.  From its very founding, the United States has held itself up as a model of constitutional government, economic enterprise, and individual freedom.  Since the early 20th century in the aftermath of World War I President Woodrow Wilson and all his successors have sought to found a new international order based on the principles of American government and society.

But globalization has fed the American appetite to reshape the rest of the world into its image.  Today, while Hollywood makes the American dream the fantasy of young people around the globe, in the real world, the economic, political, and military power of the U.S. is more easily projected around the planet.  Hard military and economic power as well as soft cultural and ideological power is in the service of a nation that believes it is humanity’s savior.

Certainly in some ways the United States has forged a path for the rest of the world.  While I consciously try not to be agent of U.S. or western cultural hegemony, I do believe in values like democracy, individual rights, and women’s liberation, which have achieved greater expression in the U.S. than in most of the rest of the world.

But I also keep in mind that the U.S. does not hold a monopoly on these values.  There are many different origins of democratic ideas and many different types of democracy.  Korea’s President Kim Dae Jung once wrote a well-known article that argues that early Korean village government and basic Confucian ideas about rulers being bound by a “mandate of heaven” were actually democratic ideas about popular participation and accountability of government officials with roots in Asia.  European social democracy has been based on different ideas about the relationship of government and the market than are found in the U.S., but which are clearly democratically inspired.  European social democracy has achieved a more equal place for women in society than has the U.S.  So democracy, individual rights, and women’s freedom were not invented in the U.S. or even necessarily have their greatest expression in the U.S.

Even more importantly, not all American values are a boon to the world.  The American appetite for violence, not only in its media, but in real life, the rapacious nature of American capitalism and consumerism, blatant and subtle racism, and mindless nationalism are just some of the American values that are spreading rapidly through the world, to the detriment of us all.

Point #9. Globalization is changing U.S. perception of the external world.  The U.S. is less and less a safe haven from international conflict.  This will have profound implications for how the U.S. acts in the world.

I have saved my most provocative comments for last.  The attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center can be seen as a form of globalization.  The global reach of Al Qaeda is facilitated by the very technologies that Americans love to celebrate.  At a broader level, the spread of Muslim fundamentalism is a form of globalization, a worldwide movement made possible by advances in communication and transportation.

Americans are currently enraged that peoples they have bombed and bullied and invaded can now strike back, not at far away American military bases or cultural symbols, but in the American homeland.  The American people now stand exposed to what CIA analysts call “blowback,” retaliation or negative consequences for acts of violence and oppression.

Historically, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans kept the U.S. relatively isolated from conflicts in Europe and Asia.  Even as the U.S. took up a global role in the 20th century, it could pick and choose where and when it intervened overseas.  For the Americans in the 20th century, war was something you traveled thousands of miles away to fight.  But not anymore.

This vulnerability of the U.S. homeland also has a back to the future component.  When the U.S. was a small and weak nation with only a foothold on the Atlantic Coast of North America, it faced many forces that could inflict serious damage on the American homeland—especially the numerous tribes of Native American Indians.  Faced with foes that could strike deep into their heartland, Americans engaged in a prolonged, bitter campaign of genocide to remove this threat.

We know that Americans view of the external world can never be the same as it was before September 11.  But no one can predict with certainty how the U.S. will respond to the growing vulnerability of its homeland.  History is some guide, but people can always transcend their past.  We can hope that a United States that has become a global leader will hold itself to a higher standard than its own behavior in the 18th and 19th centuries.  We can hope that we have learned something from the past and have become a better people for it.