When Neither Globalization Nor Nationalism Work as Answers

We increasingly hear the conclusion that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine means the end of the modern trend toward globalization. I certainly agree that his acts challenge it. But I also believe there have been reasons all along to regard the kind of globalization we have witnessed in recent decades as a transitional phenomena. I also think that we just as much stop short in our thinking if we assume that the solution is to go back to the more familiar realities of times past. Writers who I respect have proposed that the task today is to remember just who are our friends and who are our  enemies. While, again, in part I agree, I also think it is not so simple. 

For most people, the idea that further realities might exist requires a stretch, but I think it a necessary stretch. My life work as a psychiatrist and futurist continually brings me back to the conclusion that our times are requiring us to engage a new chapter in our human story. Creative Systems Theory, the body of ideas that underlies my efforts, describes the possibility—and necessity—of a kind of “growing up” as a species, what it calls Cultural Maturity. 

In multiple ways, Culturally mature perspective applauds globalization. Global interconnections support better addressing the growing number of human challenges that require planetary solutions (such as climate change, epidemics, and world hunger). They also invite economic links that can be mutually beneficial. And by enhancing communication amongst people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, globalization has the potential to support a safer and more equitable world. 

But just as much culturally mature understanding makes clear that we can’t stop with globalization as we tend to think of it. This is a point I made decades back well before current global conflagrations. Put too much of an emphasis on globalization and we risk losing the unique contributions of a diverse world and the immediate sense of purpose that comes with identifications of a more local sort. Global mass culture is not an emotionally appealing outcome. And in what might seem to contradict observations in the previous paragraph, it also risks making the world a less safe place. Creative Systems Theory describes how, if the challenges a system confronts are more than they can tolerate, they will tend to polarize. Globalization alone, by overlaying cultural realities from different times in culture’s story, is as likely to promote absolutist belief and inflame major conflict as support cooperation. 

Common ways of thinking about current circumstance have their roots in a handful of limited interpretations. On the anti-globalization side of the debate, we find identification with traditional values and nationalistic allegiances. On the pro-globalization side of the debate, people can make modern Western cultural beliefs and the global economic assumptions that follow from them ideals and end points. And more postmodern views common in academia can assume that erasing boundaries and differences inherently provides benefit.

These contrasting ways of thinking leave us with a couple images neither of which can really work going forward. A world of nation states each marking out their territories and conflicting beliefs  easily returns us to times when we divided the planet into allies and enemies—“chosen people” and “evil others.” With today’s ever more available weapons of mass destruction and challenges that require global solutions, if this is our only option, we are doomed. But if what I have described is accurate, pro-globalization positions leave us just as short. While Modern Age understanding was a grand achievement, it cannot represent an end point and believing it does ultimately undermines moving forward. And a postmodern world without distinctions, if we can go no further, in the end  leaves us hanging precariously without real guidance. 

Creative Systems Theory offers a third sort of image. Think of a set of nesting bowls. The globe is one bowl. A nation state is also a bowl. But there are also smaller bowls that reflect more local associations and bowls of an in-between sort that reflect more regional values and alliances. In a culturally mature world, we find identification at all these circumferences. And we develop approaches to decision-making appropriate to what each requires.

This third sort of image requires that we think well out into the future. To hold this more multilayered kind of picture, we need to be far enough along toward culturally mature understanding that we can tolerate the greater complexity. That includes the complexity of such a multi-layered picture. It also includes a further kind of complexity that I made reference to in a previous article. We need to be able to tolerate and move creatively in a world in which different people’s beliefs and governmental forms reflect different stages in culture’s evolutionary story. But to the degree that we can do these things, we can then bring to our collective lives the best of both global and local identification. 

I assume that there are other ways of imaging the future that could work. But any approach must appreciate limits on both sides of the globalization conversation. This will require foresight and creativity all the way around if our choices are to result in a healthier and safer world and not instead put us in even greater peril. 


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