Sun, 05 Jan 2003

Demystifying globalization

Moch. N. Kurniawan, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Lexus dan Pohon Zaitun : Memahami Globalisasi; (Original title, Lexus and The Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization); By Thomas L. Friedman; ITB, 2002; 496pp

Globalization may not be the most frequent word people say in the world but there is no doubt that it greatly affects the lives of everyone on the planet.

Some come into contact with globalization merely by eating Western fast food while others feel its presence when using the Internet.

Noted journalist Thomas L. Friedman describes the globalization phenomenon in this book.

He writes that globalization is the only major system subsisting since the end of the Cold War. It has one overarching feature: integration. This makes it different from the Cold War, which was characterized by divisions between countries.

Globalization is also characterized by a single word: the web, or network, which is greatly assisted by the presence of the Internet. The Internet symbolizes the connecting of people so as to allow them to do many things ranging from stock transactions, updating countries' situations or even organizing a worldwide strike.

Friedman writes that countries, global markets and individuals have built the power structure in globalization, replacing the bipolar structure between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The power of the global market could be seen at play in the fall of Indonesia's President Soeharto in 1998 when global players pulled out their money due to a lack of confidence in the country as a safe haven for investment.

Another example is the fact that a person like Osama bin Laden, who has money and networks, could declare a war against the U.S. in the late 1970s, forcing the U.S. to bomb Afghanistan -- where Osama was believed to be living -- with 75 rockets, each costing US$1 million. This represents a war between a superperson versus a superpower country.

Friedman defines globalization as an inexorable integration of markets, nation states and (information) technology to a degree that has never been seen before -- in such a way that all persons, firms and nation states can reach the world farther, faster and cheaper.

However, there will always be a backlash from those that are left behind by globalization, such as the poor, tribal groups, protectionists, labor unions and environmentalists.

These groups express their frustration against globalization in many ways. Poor people cutting down trees and destroying forests is one example. Protectionists ask governments to provide more incentives for local industries while labor unions request governments to stop importing cheap, but good, products to protect their own products and keep their inefficient employers operating, to give but a few examples.

Friedman says that such resistance against globalization will continue to exist, but each of the interested groups have their own agendas and are not united, thus rendering them unable to produce an alternative ideology to globalization.

In other words, globalization is the only choice, something that countries must adjust to.

Consequently, according to Friedman, the free market must be accepted along with the values of democracy, transparency, decentralization and legal certainty.

Friedman gives examples of countries that have succeeded or failed in adopting these values.

Among the extreme failures are the Soviet Union and Albania. The Soviet Union failed to develop capitalistic values after the institution of Glasnost and Perestroika as they contradicted its long-held communist values.

Meanwhile, Albania misunderstood the values of capitalism after the communist regime fell. Instead of developing values to support capitalism, it permitted too much freedom, where businessmen disrespected the rule of law, refused to pay taxes and did not care about the people's welfare.

The list of success story is, of course, headed by the U.S., to which Friedman devotes one whole chapter of his book.

Many dimensions of life are now dominated by the U.S., from the expansion of the McDonald's fast-food chain, the currency markets, to the Internet, which have been accepted worldwide.

But one question remains. Why does Friedman choose the title Lexus and the Olive Tree : Understanding Globalization.

Lexus is actually a luxury car manufacturer in Japan with 310 robots as its mechanical "workers", and a mere 66 flesh-and-blood workers. The robots work 24 hours a day, and are more productive, more accurate and more efficient than human beings.

Lexus is a symbol of modernization and increasing living standards where everyone needs comfort, automation, less work, and more leisure and wealth. Lexus is everyone's dream.

Meanwhile, the olive tree symbolizes uniqueness or distinctiveness, which by nature goes against globalization, a process that tends to make life uniform.

It represents a place where citizens can express their uniqueness so as to earn the respect of others, without fear of doing something wrong.

As an example, Friedman points to the people of Norway, one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, whose people refused to join the European Union as they felt they would loose much of their identity. The Norwegians also refused to adopt the Euro single currency.

They are sure they can continue to grow given their vast oil reserves, without the EU. Their country may be a little bit lacking in transparency and be somewhat less efficient, but the Norwegians are proud as they can continue to use their unique currency and other national symbols.

In the globalization era, the olive tree is the opponent of the Lexus, and manifests itself in movements like environmentalism, protectionism, tribalism and nationalism.

This book gives us inspiration, solutions and an understanding of how the world works now.

A lesson that is relevant to Indonesia is the destruction of rain forests in Brazil. Just like people here, many people in Brazil cut down trees arbitrarily as they had no jobs or other sources of livelihood.

A U.S. politician, Keith Alger, came to an area in Brazil intending to educate loggers so as to stop the illegal logging. But his efforts were not good enough.

He then changed his strategy into taking legal action against the loggers and creating jobs for them.

For seven years, Alger and friends fought the loggers with the result that ultimately all logging was banned by the government of Brazil.

He then contacted his friends in the U.S. to encourage them to invest in ecotourism, a move that successfully saved the forests and created jobs for the locals.

When will Indonesia adopt a similar approach?

This book is a rich source of new information and lucid explanations, making it very valuable reading for understanding better the complexity of globalization.

The translation of the book also avoids giving rise to problems in attempting to understand the main message of globalization.

However, some may dislike the book, saying it is merely a propaganda tool for globalization, one which fails to offer any alternative ideologies.