In Praise of Cultural Imperialism? Effects of Globalization on Culture

By David Rothkop
Foreign Policy
June 22, 1997

The gates of the world are groaning shut. From marble balconies and over the airwaves, demagogues decry new risks to ancient cultures and traditional values. Satellites, the Internet, and jumbo jets carry the contagion. To many people, "foreign" has become a synonym for "danger." Of course, now is not the first time in history that chants and anthems of nationalism have been heard. But the tide of nationalism sweeping the world today is unique. For it comes in reaction to a countervailing global alternative that - for the first time in history - is clearly something more than the crackpot dream of visionaries. It is also the first time in history that virtually every individual at every level of society can sense the impact of international changes. They can see and hear it in their media, taste it in their food, and sense it in the products that they buy. Even more visceral and threatening to those who fear these changes is the growth of a global labor pool that during the next decade will absorb nearly 2 billion workers from emerging markets, a pool that currently includes close to 1 billion unemployed and under-employed workers in those markets alone. These people will be working for a fraction of what their counterparts in developed nations earn and will be only marginally less productive. You are either someone who is threatened by this change or someone who will profit from it, but it is almost impossible to conceive of a significant group that will remain untouched by it.

Globalization has economic roots and political consequences, but it also has brought into focus the power of culture in this global environment - the power to bind and to divide in a time when the tensions between integration and separation tug at every issue that is relevant to international relations. The impact of globalization on culture and the impact of culture on globalization merit discussion. The homogenizing influences of globalization that are most often condemned by the new nationalists and by cultural romanticists are actually positive; globalization promotes integration and the removal not only of cultural barriers but of many of the negative dimensions of culture. Globalization is a vital step toward both a more stable world and better lives for the people in it. Furthermore, these issues have serious implications for American foreign policy. For the United States, a central objective of an Information Age foreign policy must be to win the battle of the world's information flows, dominating the airwaves as Great Britain once ruled the seas.

Culture and Conflict

Culture is not static; it grows out of a systematically encouraged reverence for selected customs and habits. Indeed, Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines culture as the "total pattern of human behavior and its products embodied in speech, action, and artifacts and dependent upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations." Language, religion, political and legal systems, and social customs are the legacies of victors and marketers and reflect the judgment of the marketplace of ideas throughout popular history. They might also rightly be seen as living artifacts, bits and pieces carried forward through the years on currents of indoctrination, popular acceptance, and unthinking adherence to old ways. Culture is used by the organizers of society - politicians, theologians, academics, and families - to impose and ensure order, the rudiments of which change over time as need dictates. It is less often acknowledged as the means of justifying inhumanity and warfare. Nonetheless, even a casual examination of the history of conflict explains well why Samuel Huntington, in his The Clash of Civilizations, expects conflict along cultural fault lines, which is precisely where conflict so often erupts. Even worse is that cultural differences are often sanctified by their links to the mystical roots of culture, be they spiritual or historical. Consequently, a threat to one's culture becomes a threat to one's God or one's ancestors and, therefore, to one's core identity. This inflammatory formula has been used to justify many of humanity's worst acts.

Cultural conflicts can be placed into three broad categories: religious warfare, ethnic conflict, and conflict between "cultural cousins," which amounts to historical animosity between cultures that may be similar in some respects but still have significant differences that have been used to justify conflict over issues of proximity, such as resource demands or simple greed.

Religion-based conflicts occur between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Jews, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, Sufis and Sunis, Protestants and Catholics, and so forth. Cultural conflicts that spring from ethnic (and in some cases religious) differences include those between Chinese and Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese, Chinese and Malays, Normans and Saxons, Slavs and Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Turks, Turks and Greeks, Russians and Chechens, Serbs and Bosnians, Hutus and Tutsis, blacks and Afrikaners, blacks and whites, and Persians and Arabs. Conflicts between "cultural cousins" over resources or territory have occurred between Britain and France, France and Germany, Libya and Egypt, and many others.

Another category that might be included in our taxonomy is quasi-cultural conflict. This conflict is primarily ideological and is not deeply enough rooted in tradition to fit within standard definitions of culture, yet it still exhibits most if not all of the characteristics of other cultural clashes. The best example here is the Cold War itself, a conflict between political cultures that was portrayed by its combatants in broader cultural terms: "godless communists" versus "corrupt capitalists." During this conflict, differences regarding the role of the individual within the state and over the distribution of income produced a "clash of civilizations" that had a relatively recent origin.

Finally, as a reminder of the toll that such conflicts take, one need only look at the 20th century's genocides. In each one, leaders used culture to fuel the passions of their armies and other minions and to justify their actions among their people. One million Armenians; tens of millions of Russians; 10 million Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals; 3 million Cambodians; and hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, Rwandans, and Timorese all were the victims of "culture" - whether it was ethnic, religious, ideological, tribal, or nationalistic in its origins. To be sure, they fell victim to other agendas as well. But the provocative elements of culture were to these accompanying agendas as Joseph Goebbels was to Adolf Hitler - an enabler and perhaps the most insidious accomplice. Historians can, of course, find examples from across the ages of "superior" cultures eradicating "inferior" opponents - in the American West, among the native tribes of the Americas and Africa, during the Inquisition, and during the expansion of virtually every empire.

Satellites As Cultural Death Stars

Critics of globalization argue that the process will lead to a stripping away of identity and a blandly uniform, Orwellian world. On a planet of 6 billion people, this is, of course, an impossibility. More importantly, the decline of cultural distinctions may be a measure of the progress of civilization, a tangible sign of enhanced communications and understanding. Successful multicultural societies, be they nations, federations, or other conglomerations of closely interrelated states, discern those aspects of culture that do not threaten union, stability, or prosperity (such as food, holidays, rituals, and music) and allow them to flourish. But they counteract or eradicate the more subversive elements of culture (exclusionary aspects of religion, language, and political/ideological beliefs). History shows that bridging cultural gaps successfully and serving as a home to diverse peoples requires certain social structures, laws, and institutions that transcend culture. Furthermore, the history of a number of ongoing experiments in multiculturalism, such as in the European Union, India, South Africa, and the United States, suggests that workable, if not perfected, integrative models exist. Each is built on the idea that tolerance is crucial to social well-being, and each at times has been threatened by both intolerance and a heightened emphasis on cultural distinctions. The greater public good warrants eliminating those cultural characteristics that promote conflict or prevent harmony, even as less-divisive, more personally observed cultural distinctions are celebrated and preserved.

The realization of such integrative models on a global scale is impossible in the near term. It will take centuries. Nor can it be achieved purely through rational decisions geared toward implementing carefully considered policies and programs. Rather, current trends that fall under the broad definitional umbrella of "globalization" are accelerating a process that has taken place throughout history as discrete groups have become familiar with one another, allied, and commingled - ultimately becoming more alike. Inevitably, the United States has taken the lead in this transformation; it is the "indispensable nation" in the management of global affairs and the leading producer of information products and services in these, the early years of the Information Age.

The drivers of today's rapid globalization are improving methods and systems of international transportation, devising revolutionary and innovative information technologies and services, and dominating the international commerce in services and ideas. Their impact affects lifestyles, religion, language, and every other component of culture. Much has been written about the role of information technologies and services in this process. Today, 15 major U.S. telecommunications companies, including giants like Motorola, Loral Space & Communications, and Teledesic (a joint project of Microsoft's Bill Gates and cellular pioneer Craig McCaw), offer competing plans that will encircle the globe with a constellation of satellites and will enable anyone anywhere to communicate instantly with anyone elsewhere without an established telecommunications infrastructure on the ground near either the sender or the recipient. (Loral puts the cost of such a call at around $ 3 per minute.) Technology is not only transforming the world; it is creating its own metaphors as well. Satellites carrying television signals now enable people on opposite sides of the globe to be exposed regularly to a wide range of cultural stimuli. Russian viewers are hooked on Latin soap operas, and Middle Eastern leaders have cited CNN as a prime source for even local news. The Internet is an increasingly global phenomenon with active development under way on every continent.

The United States dominates this global traffic in information and ideas. American music, American movies, American television, and American software are so dominant, so sought after, and so visible that they are now available literally everywhere on the Earth. They influence the tastes, lives, and aspirations of virtually every nation. In some, they are viewed as corrupting. France and Canada have both passed laws to prohibit the satellite dissemination of foreign - meaning American - content across their borders and into the homes of their citizens. Not surprisingly, in many other countries fundamentalist Iran, communist China, and the closely managed society of Singapore - central governments have aggressively sought to restrict the software and programming that reach their citizens. Their explicit objective is to keep out American and other alien political views, mores, and, as it is called in some parts of the Middle East, "news pollution." In these countries, the control of new media that give previously closed or controlled societies virtually unlimited access to the outside world is a high priority. Singapore has sought to filter out certain things that are available over the Internet - essentially processing all information to eliminate pornography. China has set up a "Central Leading Group" under the State Planning Commission and the direct supervision of a vice premier to establish a similar system that will exclude more than just what might be considered obscene.

These governments are the heirs of King Canute, the infamous monarch who set his throne at the sea's edge and commanded the waves to go backward. The Soviet Union fell in part because a closed society cannot compete in the Information Age. These countries will fare no better. They need look no further than their own elites to know this. In China, while satellite dishes are technically against the law, approximately one in five citizens of Beijing has access to television programming via a dish, and almost half of the people of Guangzhou have access to satellite-delivered programming. Singapore, the leading entrepot of Southeast Asia, is a hub in a global network of business centers in which the lives of the elites are virtually identical. Business leaders in Buenos Aires, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Istanbul, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Moscow, New Delhi, New York, Paris, Rome, Santiago, Seoul, Singapore, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo all read the same newspapers, wear the same suits, drive the same cars, eat the same food, fly the same airlines, stay in the same hotels, and listen to the same music. While the people of their countries remain divided by culture, they have realized that to compete in the global marketplace they must conform to the culture of that marketplace.

The global marketplace is being institutionalized through the creation of a series of multilateral entities that establish common rules for international commerce. If capital is to flow freely, disclosure rules must be the same, settlement procedures consistent, and redress transparent. If goods are also to move unimpeded, tariff laws must be consistent, customs standards harmonized, and product safety and labeling standards brought into line. And if people are to move easily from deal to deal, air transport agreements need to be established, immigration controls standardized, and commercial laws harmonized. In many ways, business is the primary engine driving globalization, but it would be a mistake to conclude that the implications of globalization will be limited primarily to the commercial arena.

In politics, for example, as international organizations arise to coordinate policy among many nations on global issues such as trade, the environment, health, development, and crisis management, a community of international bureaucrats is emerging. These players are as comfortable operating in the international environment as they would be at home, and the organizations that they represent in effect establish global standards and expectations - facilitating the progress of globalization. The community of nations increasingly accepts that such supranational entities are demanded by the exigencies of the times; with that acceptance also comes a recognition that the principal symbol of national identity - namely sovereignty - must be partially ceded to those entities. The United States in particular seems to have problems with this trend. For example, the United States was involved in creating the World Trade Organization and now undermines its effectiveness by arbitrarily withdrawing from its efforts to blunt the effects of the Helms-Burton act. Still, the recognition that sometimes there are interests greater than national interests is a crucial step on the path to a more peaceful, prosperous world.

Toward a Global Culture

It is in the general interest of the United States to encourage the development of a world in which the fault lines separating nations are bridged by shared interests. And it is in the economic and political interests of the United States to ensure that if the world is moving toward a common language, it be English; that if the world is moving toward common telecommunications, safety, and quality standards, they be American; that if the world is becoming linked by television, radio, and music, the programming be American; and that if common values are being developed, they be values with which Americans are comfortable. These are not simply idle aspirations. English is linking the world. American information technologies and services are at the cutting edge of those that are enabling globalization. Access to the largest economy in the world - America's - is the primary carrot leading other nations to open their markets.

Indeed, just as the United States is the world's sole remaining military superpower, so is it the world's only information superpower. While Japan has become quite competitive in the manufacture of components integral to information systems, it has had a negligible impact as a manufacturer of software or as a force behind the technological revolution. Europe has failed on both fronts. Consequently, the United States holds a position of advantage at the moment and for the foreseeable future. Some find the idea that Americans would systematically seek to promote their culture to be unattractive. They are concerned that it implies a sense of superiority on Americans' part or that it makes an uncomfortable value judgment. But the realpolitik of the Information Age is that setting technological standards, defining software standards, producing the most popular information products, and leading in the related development of the global trade in services are as essential to the well-being of any would-be leader as once were the resources needed to support empire or industry.

The economic stakes are immense considering the enormous investments that will be made over the next 10 years in the world's information infrastructure. The U.S. government estimates that telecommunications investment in Latin America alone during this period will top $ 150 billion. China will spend a similar amount, as will the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations. In fact, the market for telecommunications services is expected to top $ 1 trillion by the turn of the century. During the decade ahead, not only will enormous sums be directed toward the establishment of the global network of networks that the Clinton administration has dubbed the "Global Information Infrastructure," but those sums will pay for the foundations of a system that will dictate decades of future choices about upgrades, systems standards, software purchases, and services. At the same time, new national and international laws will be written, and they will determine how smoothly information products and services may flow from one market to another. Will steps be taken to ensure that Internet commerce remains truly free? What decisions will be made about the encryption of data that will impact not only the security of information markets but the free flow of ideas and the rights of individuals in the Information Age? Will governments allow the democratizing promise of the Internet to enable virtually anyone with a computer to contact anyone else?

The establishment of the Global Information Infrastructure is not just an enormous commercial opportunity for the world's information leader. The development of the rules governing that infrastructure will shape the nature of global politics decisively, either enhancing or undermining freedoms, thereby either speeding or slowing the pace of integration, understanding, and tolerance worldwide. The nature of individual and national relations will be transformed. Those wires and constellations of satellites and invisible beams of electronic signals crisscrossing the globe will literally form the fabric of future civilization.

Consequently, it could not be more strategically crucial that the United States do whatever is in its power to shape the development of that infrastructure, the rules governing it, and the information traversing it. Moreover, even if much of this process of developing what we might call the "infosphere" is left to the marketplace (as it should be), governments will control crucial elements of it. Governments will award many of the biggest infrastructure development contracts offered in the next decade: Some will assist their national companies in trying to win those contracts, and state officials will meet to decide the trade rules that will govern international traffic in the world's telecommunications markets, the global regulatory environment, encryption standards, privacy standards, intellectual property protections, and basic equipment standards. Governments will determine whether these are open or closed markets and what portion of development dollars will be targeted at bringing the benefits of these technologies to the poor to help counteract information inequities. Already some government intercessions into this marketplace have failed. Notably, Japan's efforts to shape the development of high-definition television standards sent that nation down an analog path in what turned out to be a digital race. Yet there are many places where there is an important role for governments and where the United States should have a carefully considered overarching policy and an aggressive stance to match.

Exporting the American Model

Many observers contend that it is distasteful to use the opportunities created by the global information revolution to promote American culture over others, but that kind of relativism is as dangerous as it is wrong. American culture is fundamentally different from indigenous cultures in so many other locales. American culture is an amalgam of influences and approaches from around the world. It is melded - consciously in many cases - into a social medium that allows individual freedoms and cultures to thrive. Recognizing this, Americans should not shy away from doing that which is so clearly in their economic, political, and security interests - and so clearly in the interests of the world at large. The United States should not hesitate to promote its values. In an effort to be polite or politic, Americans should not deny the fact that of all the nations in the history of the world, theirs is the most just, the most tolerant, the most willing to constantly reassess and improve itself, and the best model for the future. At the same time, Americans should not fall under the spell of those like Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's Mahathir bin-Mohamad, who argue that there is "an Asian way," one that non-Asians should not judge and that should be allowed to dictate the course of events for all those operating in that comer of the world. This argument amounts to self-interested political rhetoric. Good and evil, better and worse coexist in this world. There are absolutes, and there are political, economic, and moral costs associated with failing to recognize this fact.

Repression is not defensible whether the tradition from which it springs is Confucian, Judeo-Christian, or Zoroastrian. The repressed individual still suffers, as does society, and there are consequences for the global community. Real costs accrue in terms of constrained human creativity, delayed market development, the diversion of assets to enforce repression, the failure of repressive societies to adapt well to the rapidly changing global environment, and the dislocations, struggles, and instability that result from these and other factors. Americans should promote their vision for the world, because failing to do so or taking a "live and let live" stance is ceding the process to the not-always-beneficial actions of others. Using the tools of the Information Age to do so is perhaps the most peaceful and powerful means of advancing American interests.

If Americans now live in a world in which ideas can be effectively exported and media delivery systems are powerful, they must recognize that the nature of those ideas and the control of those systems are matters with which they should be deeply concerned. Is it a threat to U.S. interests, to regional peace, to American markets, and to the United States's ability to lead if foreign leaders adopt models that promote separatism and the cultural fault lines that threaten stability? It certainly is. Relativism is a veil behind which those who shun scrutiny can hide. Whether Americans accept all the arguments of Huntington or not, they must recognize that the greater the cultural value gaps in the world, the more likely it is that conflict will ensue. The critical prerequisite for gaining the optimum benefits of global integration is to understand which cultural attributes can and should be tolerated - and, indeed, promoted - and which are the fissures that will become fault lines.

It is also crucial that the United States recognize its limitations. Americans can have more influence than others, but they cannot assure every outcome. Rather, the concerted effort to shape the development of the Global Information Infrastructure and the ideas that flow within it should be seen merely as a single component of a well-rounded foreign and security policy. (And since it is not likely to be an initiative that is widely liked or admired or enhanced through explicit promotion, it is not an approach that should be part of American public diplomacy efforts.)

Of course, implementing such an approach is not going to be easy in an America that is wracked by the reaction to and the backlash against globalization. Today, the extreme left and right wings of both major political parties are united in a new isolationist alliance. This alliance has put the brakes on 60 years of expanding free trade, has focused on the threats rather than the promise posed by such critical new relationships as those with China and other key emerging markets, and has seized on every available opportunity to disengage from the world or to undermine U.S. abilities to engage or lead effectively. It will take a committed effort by the president and cooperation from leaders on Capitol Hill to overcome the political opposition of the economic nationalists and neoisolationists. It will not happen if those in leadership positions aim simply to take the path of least political resistance or to rest on the accomplishments of the recent past. In a time of partisan bickering, when the emphasis of top officials has shifted from governing to politicking, there is a risk that America will fail to rise to these challenges. While the Clinton administration has broken important ground in developing a Global Information Infrastructure initiative and in dealing with the future of the Internet, encryption issues, and intellectual property concerns, these efforts are underfunded, sometimes managed to suit political rather than strategic objectives, shortsighted (particularly the steps concerning encryption, in which rapid changes and the demands of the marketplace are being overlooked), and poorly coordinated. At the same time, some of America's most powerful tools of engagement - which come in the form of new trade initiatives - seemingly have been shelved. This problem is most clearly manifested in the fact that fasttrack negotiating-authority approval has not yet been granted and in the real possibility that Congress will refuse to grant such approval before the turn of the century.

The Clinton administration and its successors must carefully consider the long-term implications of globalization, such as the impact of the rise of new markets on America's economic influence and how America can maintain its leadership role. Aspects of American culture will play a critical role in helping to ensure the continuation of that leadership. American cultural diversity gives the United States resources and potential links with virtually every market and every major power in the world. America's emphasis on the individual ensures that American innovation will continue to outstrip that of other nations. Working in its favor is the fact that the "Pax Americana" is a phenomenon of the early years of globalization and that the U.S. ascendancy to undisputed leadership came at the same time as the establishment of international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund; thus, for all the challenges of adjustment, the United States has more leadership experience than any other nation in this new global environment. Also, though some may decry Americans' emphasis on "newness" and suggest that it is a result of their lack of an extensive history, it also represents a healthy lack of cultural "baggage": It is this emphasis on newness that puts the United States in the best position to deal with a world in which the rapidity of change is perhaps the greatest strategic challenge of all.

Identity Without Culture

The opportunity lies before us as Americans. The United States is in a position not only to lead in the 21st century as the dominant power of the Information Age but to do so by breaking down the barriers that divide nations - and groups within nations - and by building ties that create an ever greater reservoir of shared interests among an ever larger community of peoples. Those who look at the post-Cold War era and see the "clash of civilizations" see only one possibility. They overlook the great strides in integration that have united the world's billions. They discount the factors that have led to global consolidation and the reality that those factors grow in power with each new day of the global era - integration is a trend that builds upon itself. They argue that America should prepare for the conflicts that may come in this interim period without arguing that it should accelerate the arrival of a new era with every means at its disposal.

Certainly, it is naive to expect broad success in avoiding future conflicts among cultures. But we now have tools at our disposal to diminish the disparities that will fuel some of those conflicts. While we should prepare for conflict, we should also remember that it is not mere idealism that demands that we work for integration and in support of a unifying global culture ensuring individual rights and enhancing international stability: It is also the ultimate realpolitik, the ultimate act of healthy self-interest.

Allowing ourselves to be swept up in the backlash against globalization would undermine America's ability to advance its self-interests. Americans must recognize that those interests and the issues pertaining to them reach across the disciplines of economics, politics, science, and culture. An interdisciplinary approach to international policymaking is thus required. We must also fully understand the new tools at our disposal. We must understand the profound importance and nature of the emerging infosphere - and its potential as a giant organic culture processor, democratic empowerer, universal connector, and ultimate communicator. Moreover, it is not enough to create and implement the right policies using the new tools at our disposal. Policymakers must better communicate the promise of this new world and make clear America's stake in that promise and the role Americans must play to achieve success. The United States does not face a simple choice between integration or separation, engagement or withdrawal. Rather, the choice is between leading a more peaceful world or being held hostage to events in a more volatile and violent one.

David Rothkopf is managing director of Kissinger Associates and an adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University. He served as a senior official in the U.S. Department of Commerce during the first term of the Clinton administration.