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The Dilemma of Globalization and the 2000 Presidential Election

On Principle, v8n3

June 2000

by David Tucker

When it comes to foreign policy, George Bush and Al Gore have a similar problem. They do not know what to do about globalization. No one does, for that matter, which may be one reason why this problem does not get much attention. The name is another problem. Globalization sounds like something only an academic would care about. But it is, one could argue, the most important issue in the election. If either Bush or Gore embraces globalization, he will lose core supporters and possibly the election. If either rejects it, he risks leaving the country unprepared for the future and repudiating something essential about the United States.

To see the dilemma that each faces, it is necessary to understand what globalization is. In simplest terms, it means economic and political liberalization on a global scale, the freeing of trade and the spread of democracy around the world. This sounds like a wonderful thing but it produces two problems, one each for Gore and Bush.

Gore’s problem derives from the economic effect of globalization. The declining cost of communication and the increasing liberalization of trade have increased global economic competition, efficiency and productivity. This means that various kinds of economic activity—making sports shoes, writing software, selling by phone—are shifting to where they can be done most cheaply. This process increases wealth, making everyone better off ultimately, and some people much better off, but it leaves other people, the less well-educated and those whose jobs have moved away, less well off immediately. In other words, globalization hurts a lot of Democratic voters in the short-term.

Bush’s problem derives from the political effect of globalization. As economies become free, national borders become less important. Global economic forces and not national policy exert greater control on domestic economies. As democracy and human rights become the standard of conduct around the globe, this standard is applied to relations between nations as well as to relations between governments and their citizens. The result again is a shrinking of the power of the state, now constrained by what are called international norms. National interest becomes less important. Embracing globalization, therefore, would alienate those voters who associate the Republican party with nationalism and the assertion of national interest.

Some analysts of globalization have argued that the nation-state will wither away or that workers in industrialized countries will be driven by international competition to accept wages such as those paid to the most impoverished foreign workers. These extreme claims about globalization have proven false. But this does not mean that more moderate claims for its effects, such as those made above, are also false. Global economic and political liberalization is occurring and poses a dilemma for Bush and Gore.

That globalization is occurring is one reason why the Presidential candidates should deal with it. The opportunities and problems it poses are real and if they are not dealt with, the United States and the world will be a poorer and potentially less free place. But there is another, more important reason why the candidates should address globalization: it is the culmination of the American Revolution. The United States justified its separation from Great Britain and its existence as a nation on the claim that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our national life, therefore, rests on a universal claim, a claim applicable to all men at all times. This is the basis in principle of a universal government.

In apparent fulfillment of this intention inherent in the words of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson proposed shortly after the revolution that first Great Britain and the United States and then other countries should exchange reciprocal rights of citizenship until something like universal citizenship emerged. One can see in this proposal, and in Jefferson’s support of free trade, the deliberate limiting of the power of nation-states in the name of human rights and the encouragement of something like the globalization that is now occurring about us. It is true that for good prudential reasons, one might not want to act in every instance on the universal claims of our Revolution, but this does not alter the fact that the principles of our founding point to something like globalization. In an important sense, we cannot deny globalization without denying the Declaration of Independence.

There are good reasons, then, to address globalization but, as noted earlier, in doing so each candidate incurs political costs. This dilemma is more acute for Gore than for Bush. The Democratic party is the home of both environmentalists (Gore is a prominent one) and human rights activists, as well as organized labor. The former want a global regime imposed on the United States and other nations because, for example, pollution crosses national borders and human rights are universal. The latter, on the other hand, want our national labor standards imposed around the globe so that there is no competition for their jobs. Although they can be allies on some issues (e.g., free trade agreements must include restrictions to protect the environment, which also raise the cost of imported goods and thus protect union jobs), these two constituencies are really on opposite sides of the globalization divide.

Union members traditionally and so called Reagan Democrats are more concerned with national defense, for instance, than most environmentalists and human rights activists. No matter which side he comes down on, Gore could lose votes. Globalization does not cut so cleanly through Republican ranks. While there is some danger that by espousing free trade Bush may lose the votes of businessmen who favor protectionism, for him the issue is not so much losing votes as abandoning principle. Bush wants to be a foreign policy realist and nationalist to distinguish himself from the dreamy internationalism of the Clinton-Gore administration; but America’s principles are in a decisive way dreamy and internationalist.

How have the candidates handled their respective dilemmas so far? The best response for Gore has already been tried and discredited by the Clinton administration. The most compelling and politically appealing element of Clinton-Gore foreign policy offered a two-fold response to globalization. First, it insisted that free trade must be pursued because America’s strength and well-being required it. But it insisted equally as a matter of justice and a quid pro quo for those harmed by globalization that the Federal government should undertake programs that would encourage people to support globalization by compensating them for any temporary loss they suffered because of it and preparing them to work in a globalized economy. In practical terms, this meant providing universal health care, which would allow people to move freely from job to job as the global economy restructured itself, and retraining programs to allow those who lost their jobs to get others.

In theory, the advantages of this plan appeared great. It provided an up-to-the-minute justification for some old Democratic instincts—government programs to fix problems—and some goodies for traditional Democratic supporters and, even better, the vast number of independent voters worried about health care costs, while appealing to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. In practice, of course, it turned out to be something else. Hillary Clinton botched health care “reform,” conservative Republicans got hold of Congress, and labor and other Democratic constituencies did not buy Clinton’s version of the new world order. As his administration wore on, Clinton abandoned his grand plan, a retreat that has accelerated as his legacy and Vice-President have come closer to their electoral test.

When the World Trade Organization met in Seattle a while back to plan the next round of global trade liberalization, Clinton seemed to echo the criticisms of those in the street trying to disrupt the meeting.

Having lost the one way to resolve the tensions in the Democratic party, Gore is thus in a tight spot. In what his campaign staff assured us was a major speech on foreign policy on April 30, Gore spoke of national interest and the need for a strong military but also announced that “we are now in a global age” and spoke of new security challenges, such as environmental issues and human rights concerns. He proclaimed himself for free trade and against protectionism, of course, but only, paradoxically, if free trade includes protection for the environment, the interests of workers in the United States and the rights of workers overseas. If he is in a tight spot, apparently, what the clever politician does is vacillate in hopes of wiggling free. This spectacle will no doubt continue throughout the campaign and continue to prevent Gore from saying anything coherent about foreign policy.

For his part, George Bush has had an easier time being coherent about foreign policy, since there is not really a schism in his party. In his speeches, Bush has stood firmly on the ground of national interest and unambiguously supported free trade. While doing so, he admits that our principles are important and that they are universal but does not draw any conclusions from these facts. One senses, again, a shying away from the implications of our principles because they are not simply nationalistic. Our principles point beyond us but nowhere in Bush’s speeches do we hear much about how we should treat others, except in so far as it serves our security needs.

It is true that the bungling of the Clinton-Gore administration (Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans) has discredited humanitarian operations. Yet the impulse behind them should not be dismissed. How we treat foreigners is important and bears on how Americans treat each other, because America is a nation of foreigners. So far, in his effort to distinguish himself from Clinton-Gore and “to shore up his base,” as they say, Bush has put the emphasis on nationalism and national interest. But, unlike Gore’s, Bush’s political situation would allow him to discover a prudent blend of national interest and universal concern. America’s and the world’s well-being requires this, as we live through the age of globalization. In the final analysis, then, globalization is a problem for Gore but an opportunity for Bush.

David Tucker teaches at the United States Naval Postgraduate School, and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism.

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