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The Parochial and the Global are Intertwined


For The Edge, Forum July 24, 2017

In the time of Brexit and the tenure of Trump; with the triumph of Putin and the threat of Kim, instead of thinking about how Globalisation is being reversed, we should take a longer perspective and think about how the global battle in modern times has always been between the Parochial and the Global.

One should not forget that much that has passed for global trends have been more likely than not, the parochialism of one nation expanding beyond its home turf.

We see that today still in how “national interests” – especially those of big powers – so often overshadows global considerations; and we see how the idea of “rule of law” is a favourite strategy among certain small countries for limiting the parochialism of the powerful from taking over global spaces.

Now, the expansion of parochialism into global spheres used to be called colonialism. Colonialism, as we know, was devastated beyond redemption by the Second World War. The defeat of the Axis Powers by the Allies in 1945 did not help, and the world was instead quickly enveloped in the new global conflict we call the Cold War, which ended only in 1991.

The USD-based Bretton Woods accord hurriedly signed by Allied nations in July 1944 to be the foundation for a global economy, was done with the conviction that the post-war world must deal with economic problems more thoroughly than it had done after the First World War, and that the global monetary system must avoid the chaos of the inter-war period and become more centralized instead.

The writing was on the wall that colonized territories would soon all become new nation-states, mimicking more than imitating the organizational logic of their former colonial masters.

Globalisation in our age is therefore as much a consciousness fostered by international conflict as it is by economic interdependence. Globalisation has therefore had two sides to it. One concerns international regulations, institutional connectivity, and economic integration. The other has much to do with the damage control undertaken by retreating colonial powers, and the subsequent control over as much global dynamics and space as possible by new big powers.

And so, Nationalism-Neocolonialism became the salient global dichotomy, interwoven with the Left-Right dimension of the Cold War.

Conceptually, much of this was reflected in post-war International Organisations, and most clearly in the United Nations Organization. Founded in October 1945, this political forum expressed the political agenda of the day the way the Bretton Woods accord staked out the economic agenda that the victors (apart from the Soviet Union and its client states) had decided upon.

And so, while two global economic systems would vie for prominence in the ensuing four decades, the United Nations sought nominal political equality among all peoples, no doubt dubiously simplified first as nations and then represented as states, but submitting to the power of those who are more equal. And so, the United Nations was formed around an ungainly General Assembly adjoining the quarrelsome Security Council.

In many ways, the United Nations of the nationalist era was to succeed where the League of Nations of the late colonial era failed. But the retention of the term “Nations”, of the notion of blood ties and ethnicity perpetuates a 19th century idea. The notion that States are immediate expressions of Nations continue to be preferred to the notion of States as slow creators of Nations, and that trend was sadly adopted by most new post-colonial states.

But beyond the economic restructuring and the political compromises, the world also saw the rise of organizations and the coining of concepts, which perceive the Global as a human striving. Following the horrendous sufferings of the Second World War and the Pacific War, many did realize that Man must be reined in.

And so the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into being, already on 10 December 1948 in the midst of power-war reconstruction. This was a reconstruction in philosophy.

It is a document, if ever there was one, which seeks to express universal values, secularly. The claim is that we have common values, not because we have a common culture, but simply because we are humans. Ambitious indeed. Factors like race, class, religion, age, gender, citizenship and sexual orientation shall not matter. Being human brings rights that other humans, be they individuals or collectives, have a duty to respect.

In many ways, the cultural aspects of modern Globalism, in distinction from the economic and the political, is apparent in the United Nations’ many funds and programmes, be it in UNESCO and UNHCR, or FAO and ILO.

Organizing global politics, global economics and global culture have been the major challenges of the post-war period. They still are today when international politics is multipolar, economics is neoliberal and cultural battles are religious again. But new challenges have appeared, foremost of which are the altering of the Earth’s environment into one that is less friendly for humans and most living things; and awesome technologies such as the Internet, the smartphone, robotics and artificial intelligence, which are changing human societies and behaviour beyond comprehension.

Such is the 21st century, and what appear to be de-globalization trends in the case of Trump’s USA and Brexit’s UK are merely a new phase in the posst-war globalizing of the world as a whole. The struggle between the Parochial and the Global continues.

Ooi Kee Beng is Executive Director of Penang Institute. His latest books include The Eurasian Core: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS, 2015).


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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