Lately, and maybe due to an overall difficult economic situation the concept of nationalism seems to find new potential for growth. However, it is more unjustified than ever before.
In the light of an ever increased degradation of our world environment and aware that climate change is definitely not just a belief but something real with a face, most people (except maybe members of some dubious development in the US, the catholic church or some other religious orders that still didn’t reach the point of maturity) nowadays acknowledge the need to address global challenges on a global level. And with examples such as the UNO or the Kyoto protocol there are first attempts to give it a try. However, the so over- and misused platitude “think globally, act locally” is more than often a rather empty promise. With our without conscience international companies, experts, tradespeople, consumer – in short, probably the bigger part of us – quite often do exactly the opposite. We think locally and act globally!
One reason why this happens is very simple and obvious: the fact that globalisation and global trade have changed markets in such a way that almost everything we consume has impacts in some other parts of the world, make it difficult not to be acting globally. And whereas globalization is often described as a monster responsible for all the bad things in this world, this wouldn’t have to be bad and global trade would actually contribute to a sustainable development. Provided that we have the right policies and monitoring mechanisms. However, exactly there lies problem number one: the lack of proper policies and monitoring.
The frequency and speed at which commodities are traded nowadays makes supply chains extremely long and intransparent. The daily turnover in foreign exchange markets is now estimated to be more than $4trillion – 300 times more than in 1973. It is self-explaining that such transactions are the ideal basis for “covering up” of all sorts of quackery, sham and fraud.
The good thing is that there would actually be mechanisms and tools to relativize this. Ecolabels, for example, emerged in the 1970s as a means to guarantee minimal requirements for certain goods. They work through independent auditing by a third-party that approves a good that meets the required standard with issuance of an accordant certification. The principle of a third-party verification is actually a concept that forms the basis of most modern political systems: that of separation of power. No wonder ecolabels are a good and widely accepted tool to approve the quality of a good, since in comparison to the rather subjective “made in” issued by a country, many of them are definitely more credible.
Talking about countries I come to the first of the implications related to the term. Unfortunately, countries are often affected with an “unhealthy” portion of nationalism; unhealthy in the sense that it uses the same mechanisms racism does: to separate a nation from the rest of the world by drawing a virtual boundary around a randomly selected group of people, differentiating them from the rest by labelling those beyond the line with the rating “bad”. In the context of global trade nationalism is likewise used to lift a product from the country of residence above a comparable imported one by making people believe that its quality was better only because it is made locally. Needless to say that there is no justification for that, even if especially Western countries still have this elitist thinking that everything made in the West was automatically good.
Only the fact that a product comes from a certain country doesn’t make it better, it is the individual effort of a producer that makes the difference. And in order to have a fair and transparent comparison, standards provide criteria against which those efforts and products can be benchmarked. How would you feel if people would assume, that black-eyed hairdresser are better than other ones? That women with red hair make the best politicians? That men between 23 and 25 are the best cooks? Or that people who speak French are the best musician?
What if all of a sudden you couldn’t any longer find employment because you didn’t meet the above criteria?
Right, we don’t need arbitrary criteria to approve a product or not. And in that sense we don’t need nations. Nations are outdated relicts. Their system boundaries were drawn arbitrarily in a time and by people that had no clue how the world would look like in the 21st century. With the challenges we currently face we need new boundaries. And I would say that a good basis would be quality and striving for improvement.
In order to face challenges like climate change or to meet targets such as the Millennium Development Goals we have to do the best we can. One shadow-effect of nationalism, however, is that it helped foster mediocrity. For industry leaders, politicians, producer and whomever who could identify themselves with a nation and hide behind it, “made in” was a mean to live in constant mediocrity. It was a justification not to go for the best possible, not to foster improvement, or not to support those who wanted to make a difference. It was the right framework to protect the lazy and uninspired. That was good enough in a society that only knew exploitation. Today, we can’t afford it anymore.
The biggest benefit of a globalized world could be that of an open and transparent world market; one that fosters competition in the sense that only the best and most sustainable goods and services can make it into this market. It would help to get rid of lemons – bad goods and services that make it out there only due to the irresponsible support of some lazy governments (often backed up with huge amounts of subsidies) formed by politicians who are only concerned about and focused on being re-elected for another term and thus willing to buy as many votes as possible by whatever means. Of course slogans like “local employment”, a strong nation, locals first etc. are effective. They have been applied and tested over decades if not centuries. Yet they haven’t helped to improve overall living conditions on this planet.
To conclude, there is no room for concepts like “mediocrity” and “nation” in a world shaken by overall degradation and challenges of global dimensions. No matter where we come from or what passport we hold, we are all part of this world and we have the responsibility to help protecting it to our best understanding. What we do has impacts in other parts of the globe and hence, we need to consider what we are doing.
And to modify the above mentioned slogan to an appropriate version valid for the 21st century, I’d say: “think globally, act responsibly”.